The Gospel of Chloe: A New Contribution to “Q” Studies

While this corrupt tract, found pasted to the bottom of a patio table in Sharm el Sheik, dates from the second century, it does not seem to be connected with similar materials found in saunas and billiard table pockets.

Judging from the poor condition of the manuscript, multiple erasures, and detritus from camel faex, the original language seems to have been Aramaic, suggesting a Palestinian provenance for its most important ideas. A third character is a female disciple referred to only as “Daughter” by the male speakers. Extraneous ossuary evidence from Talpiot (תלפיות) shows almost decisively that the woman in question is the biological daughter of Judas and hence the niece of Jesus by Judas’s sister Tiffany.

While an interesting product of a syncretistic heretical movement, scholars have been unable to determine what relevance its contents may have for the serious study of the New Testament.


Jesus: Judas, do you [ ] me?

Judas: That depends on what you mean by [ ]

Jesus: Judas, do you [ ] Me?

Judas. Oh, that’s better, you ask louder and capitalize Me. It’s like I said, and it’s what the Daughter said. It is what it is, isn’t it?

Jesus: So you don’t?

Daughter: Like who said?

Jesus: Who will remember the Glory?

Daughter (rubbing eyes and adjusting veil): I will.

Judas. I never know what to answer. Ok, I will too. And just what is the glory?

Jesus: The Kingdom of God is like the night sky at noon.

Judas: Just don’t. People are already saying we’re gnostics. No, I say, he’s tired. He’s been with the multitudes again. He doesn’t bring lunch, again. Maybe blood sugar, knock on wood.

Jesus: But you must remember; that is why I came into the world
Daughter: Why do you say things like “came into the world”? We know where you’re from. You came in a cart just like the rest of us.

Jesus: It will be harder for a relatively fat man to prick his neighbor with a needle than for a camel to enter the mystery of the kingdom of God by the narrow gate. But I say to you, shake the dust off your sandals! Let him who has ears, etc.

Judas: Look, my job is to make sense of this. When you hired me, you said Judas, what I really need is a PR man, a people person. Ever since then, it’s Judas do you love me. Peter do you love me. It’s driving us all blithers. We need writers–professional people who can sell it. Frankly, the boys are saying you’ve lost it and that we’ll never get to Jerusalem.

Daughter: I know someone. His name is Chloe.

Judas: Chloe is a girl’s name.

Daughter: It’s a gender preference. He writes like a boy.

Judas: We can change his name to–something else.

Jesus: I like Chloe: Someday he’ll be famous, like the womb that bore me. Does Chloe love me?

Judas: Chloe doesn’t bloody know you. You talk, let Daughter write. Do your short thingies, not the long “I am the cherry in the middle of the chocolate”- stuff.

Daughter: I don’t know how to write. I have a good memory, though. I think it will help with the kerygma.

Jesus: The law is inscribed on the hearts of men though not one of seven bothers know what treasures it will own when the son of man comes like David on the heights. Not women though. It’s not inscribed there. The secret of the Kingdom lay hidden like a pearl under an oyster basket. Who among the daughters of men can shuck the oyster….

Judas: You can’t saaay that. In two thousand years people will say, Oh right: Jesus the liberator. Look what he says about women and oysters. And you don’t bloody make sense and you don’t stick to the point and without us you’d still be scrubbing spit off the floor in your father’s house.

Jesus: In my father’s house there are countless mansions. And my father will say to you, “Depart from me before I cast you among the swine like the pearls you are” or something like that.

Judas: Daughter, how much will Chloe want to sort this out?

Daughter: He’ll do it for thirty.

Judas: Thirty denarii? That’s great.

Daughter: Thirty pieces of silver. That’s real money.

Judas: It will break us. It might not even be worth it to clean up his language, but sometimes he sounds sane. And let’s face it, he’s the rockstar. Christ, if only he hadn’t wasted the nard.

Daughter: That’s right, blame me. He has really nice feet.

Jesus: Blessed be you Simon bar Jona, for flesh and blood sake now get behind me. Yes, there.

Judas: That’s disgusting. No wonder Peter ran off. He’s in one of his trances. Does Chloe know we can’t put his name on the scroll?

Daughter: Not yet. I still have to see if he’s got time. What do you suggest.

Judas: Discretion. People have to think he said it. No titles, no bylines. Thirty drachma, not a copper more. Just the sayings that make a little sense. No description–no lakes, or hill, or cliffs. We’ll fill that in later, after… you know.

Daughter: Got it. Just sort out the sayings.

Judas: Not all of them. I’ve got someone named John working on the worst ones. We’ll see how he goes, maybe publish a second volume. But John wants a byline. The pig.

Daughter: Just the sayings, no scenery, make them short.

Judas: Exactly: We can do this. “Chloe” Move it around your mouth. It has a nice qof thing going—k-k–k. That’s it, we’ll call it Q. Just us–us. No one outside knows. In two thousand years, who will guess?

The Secular City

Someone once defined a puritan as a person who lives with the gnawing suspicion that his next door neighbor is having more fun than he is. When you get right down to it, what the religious conservative hates about American democracy is his own suspicion that his neighbor isn’t as Christian as he is.

It is a lie propagated by wishful-thinking conservatives that America is a Christian country. But it would also be a lie to say that this country was founded by atheists. It wasn’t.

It’s also untrue to say that America was founded by humanists. In the eighteenth century, the term had already come to describe attitudes associated with classical idealism, reborn during the Renaissance–especially the Italian branch of the movement. Nothing frustrates the modern humanist more than to be told that both Erasmus, a pretty devout Catholic, and Calvin, a pretty devout Protestant were not just humanists but typify their respective branches of the humanist Zeitgeist of the sixteenth century.

America’s founders weren’t humanists, though they were fair examples of humanistic learning–especially Franklin and the polymathic, almost disgustingly smart Jefferson. If anything, both were too skeptical of religion to have been good humanists in the renaissance sense of the word.

But for the most part the founders of the Republic were secular. When they trusted in God it was simply a homonym for trusting in themselves–a real “All others pay cash” approach to the slogan that finally adorns our currency.

They knew what they were doing when they rejected Hobbes and reinvented Locke’s theory of government.

Secularism and self-reliance (the word Emerson assigned an almost mystical value to) granted them the ability to move in less than a century from the narrow religiousness of the Bay Colony puritans and the cavaliers of Virginia Anglicanism to a new position that would be neatly summarized in the idea of “toleration.” If there was ever a miracle in American history, it was that.

The British Parliament had passed a completely useless Act of Toleration in 1689 when the Plymouth Colony was only sixty five years old (Boston was founded in 1630, ten years after Plymouth. Harvard in 1636, a century and a half before the United States and, remarkably, over a century before most Oxford colleges).

The Act did not extend its tenderness to Roman Catholics or non-Trinitarians (thus not Jews or Unitarians) and excluded them from university education and political office. It is why,vestigially, to this day, a special act of Parliament would be required for an heir to the throne to be anything but a Protestant. Perhaps even to marry one.

Only in the nineteenth century did England get round to upgrading the 1689 law; it was beat at the hustings by the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 that mandated religious freedom for anyone living in the colony, though it was a bit tough, in British fashion, on anyone denying the divinity of Jesus. The penalty for that was death. Hardly a model for the First Amendment.

The turning point for American law was the belief that individual liberty entailed freedom of conscience. That meant that colonial protections of particular religious practices–Baptists in Rhode Island, Anglicans in North Carolina, Catholics in Maryland–gave way to a more spacious principle based not on the status quo of religious numbers but to the belief that conscience is more sacred than deity.

John Adams

That principle gets enshrined in the Virginia Statute of 1786, “That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote it; James Madison oiled its way through the Virginia Legislature.

In the long preamble, Jefferson jabs for the idea that argument and debate are the only tests of religion opinion, and that religious tests insult the divine gift of reason:

“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible tests.”

Let kings, tyrants, and all Gods but Reason beware.

It was a short step to the concise language of the First Amendment to the Constitution. To paraphrase: Congress is not in the religion business. It is not in the anti-religion business. Public institutions funded by government may not be in the religious business. And politicians who curry public favor by suggesting otherwise walk a very fine line, fraught with the danger of betraying the republican and secular values that resulted in American democracy.

I assume that the absurdist “reading” of the Constitution at the opening of 112th Congress of the United States included a reading of the Bill of Rights. But of course, like their reading of the Bible, the Conservative Christian reading of the text made little sense to its readers. For example: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It took until the Illiterate Century, our own, for a Supreme Court to say that this meant a private citizen is entitled to carry a concealed weapon.

And this is why secularism, far more than disbelief in God, is considered threatening by religious conservatives. Mere atheism has no political implications. None. Secularism on the other hand requires the religious conservative to defend the proposition that belief in God is an entitlement in a nation where that opinion is, basically, outlawed by writ even they want to consider sacred.

Secularism is more than a recipe for religious toleration, however. And both religious persons and non-religious persons need to realise that. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and the obsessively odd John Adams would not have been atheists. It is a waste of intellectual time to think that they were or would have been.

But they would vomit at the obsequious language of both Democrats and Republicans–especially at the necessity of having to proclaim religious faith in order to qualify as a serious contender for political office.

The secular factor in American democracy is not only on trial at home; it is precisely why American democracy is a hugely unlikely option abroad–especially in the Middle East. More’s the pity that we have fought wars to export it, without recognizing its non-exportable features as a philosophy that does not trust in God at all. I do not know what is sweeping through the Middle East at the moment. But I know it is not the Spirit of ’76.

American secularism does not enshrine any opinion or movement. In fact, it exposes the reality than any opinion or movement that cannot be argued and reasoned deserves to be treated, like the divine right of kings, as a new superstition.

It’s important to realize that while the American experiment in secularity came from a time when gentlemen and ladies were questioning core religious doctrines like the divinity of Jesus, it also came from circles that had a quiet belief in the divinity of reason.

To the extent we share something like a demythologized vision of that faith in ourselves, we are secularists.

To the extent we don’t–or ascribe it to the power of an unseen God to help us out of our misery–we are mere partisans, peasants to our passions and private agendas.

Why I Am an Unbeliever: Carl van Doren

Part of the Ongoing Atheist Literacy Project From Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds (New York: Duffield, 1926)

It can fairly be asked: Where has America gone since this was published in 1926 as a Book of the Month Club selection? That’s right: your grandmother might have read this.

Let us be honest. There have always been men and women without the gift of faith. They lack it, do not desire it, and would not know what to do with it if they had it. They are apparently no less intelligent than the faithful, and apparently no less virtuous. How great the number of them is it would be difficult to say, but they exist in all communities and are most numerous where there is most enlighten­ment. As they have no organization and no creed, they can of course have no official spokesman. Nevertheless, any one of them who speaks out can be trusted to speak, in a way, for all of them. Like the mystics, the unbelievers, wherever found, are essentially of one spirit and one language. I cannot, however, pretend to represent more than a single complexion of unbelief.

The very terms which I am forced to use put me at the outset in a trying position. Belief, being first in the field, naturally took a positive term for itself and gave a negative term to unbelief. As an unbeliever, I am therefore obliged to seem merely to dissent from the believers, no matter how much more I may do. Actually I do more. What they call unbelief, I call belief. Doubtless I was born to it, but I have tested it with reading and speculation, and I hold it firmly What I have referred to as the gift of faith I do not, to be exact, regard as a gift. I regard it, rather, as a survival from an earlier stage of thinking and feeling: in short, as a form of superstition. It, and not the thing I am forced to name unbe­lief, seems to me negative. It denies the reason. It denies the evidences in the case, in the sense that it insists upon introducing elements which come not from the facts as shown but from the imaginations and wishes of mortals. Unbelief does not deny the reason and it sticks as closely as it can to the evidences.

I shall have to be more explicit. When I say I am an unbeliever, I do not mean merely that I am no Mormon or no Methodist, or even that I am no Christian or no Buddhist. These seem to me relatively unimpor­tant divisions and subdivisions of belief. I mean that I do not believe in any god that has ever been devised, in any doctrine that has ever claimed to be revealed, in any scheme of immortality that has ever been expounded.

As to gods, they have been, I find, countless, but even the names of most of them lie in the deep compost which is known as civilization, and the memories of few of them are green. There does not seem to me to be good reason for holding that some of them are false and some of them, or one of them, true. Each was created by the imaginations and wishes of men who could not account for the behavior of the universe ~ in any other satisfactory way. But no god has satisfied his worshipers forever. Sooner or later they have realized that the attributes once ascribed to him, such as selfishness or lustfulness or vengefulness, are unworthy of the moral systems which men have evolved among them­selves. Thereupon follows the gradual doom of the god, however long certain of the faithful may cling to his cult. In the case of the god who still survives in the loyalty of men after centuries of scrutiny, it can always be noted that little besides his name has endured. His attributes will have been so revised that he is really another god. Nor is this objec­tion met by the argument that the concept of the god has been purified while the essence of him survived. In the concept alone can he be studied; the essence eludes the grasp of the human mind. I may prefer among the various gods that god who seems to me most thoroughly purged of what I regard as undivine elements, but I make my choice, obviously, upon principles which come from observation of the con­duct of men. Whether a god has been created in the image of gross desires or of pure desires does not greatly matter. The difference proves merely that different men have desired gods and have furnished them­selves with the gods they were able to conceive. Behind all their con­ceptions still lies the abyss of ignorance. There is no trustworthy evi­dence as to a gods absolute existence.

Nor does the thing called revelation, as I see it, carry the proof fur­ther. All the prophets swear that a god speaks through them, and yet they prophesy contradictions. Once more, men must choose in accor­dance with their own principles. That a revelation was announced long ago makes it difficult to examine, but does not otherwise attest its soundness. That some revealed doctrine has lasted for ages and has met the needs of many generations proves that it is the kind of doc­trine which endures and satisfies, but not that it is divine. Secular doc­trines which turned out to be perfectly false have also endured and sat­isfied. If belief in a god has to proceed from the assumption that he exists, belief in revelation has first to proceed from the assumption that a god exists and then to go further to the assumption that he com­municates his will to certain men. But both are mere assumptions. Neither is, in the present state of knowledge, at all capable of proof. Suppose a god did exist, and suppose he did communicate his will to any of his creatures. What man among them could comprehend that language? What man could take that dictation? And what man could overwhelmingly persuade his fellows that he had been selected and that they must accept him as authentic? The best they could do would be to have faith in two assumptions and to test the revealed will by its correspondence to their imaginations and wishes. At this point it may be contended that revelation must be real because it arouses so much response in so many human bosoms. This does not follow without a leap of the reason into the realm of hypothesis. Nothing is proved by this general response except that men are everywhere very much alike. They have the same members, the same organs, the same glands, in varying degrees of activity. Being so much alike, they tend to agree upon a few primary desires. Physical and social conditions brings about a general similarity in prophecies.

One desire by which the human mind is often teased is the desire to live after death. It is not difficult to explain. Men live so briefly that their plans far outrun their ability to execute them. They see themselves cut off before their will to live is exhausted. Naturally enough, they wish to survive, and, being men, believe in their chances for survival. But their wishes afford no possible proof. Life covers the earth with wishes, as it covers the earth with plants and animals. No wish, how­ever, is evidence of anything beyond itself. Let millions hold it, and it is still only a wish. Let each separate race exhibit it, and it is still only a wish. Let the wisest hold it as strongly as the foolishest, and it is still only a wish. Whoever says he knows that immortality is a fact is merely hoping that it is. And whoever argues, as men often do, that life would be meaningless without immortality because it alone brings justice into human fate, must first argue, as no man has ever quite convincingly done, that life has an unmistakable meaning and that it is just. I, at least, am convinced on neither of these two points. Though I am, I believe, familiar with all the arguments, I do not find any of them notably better than the others. All I see is that the wish for immortality is wide-spread, that certain schemes of immortality imagined from it have here or there proved more agreeable than rival schemes, and that they have been more generally accepted. The religions which provide these successful schemes I can credit with keener insight into human wishes than other religions have had, but I cannot credit them with greater authority as regards the truth. They are all guesswork.

That I think thus about gods, revelation, and immortality ought to be sufficient answer to the question why I am an unbeliever. It would be if the question were always reasonably asked, but it is not. There is also an emotional aspect to be considered. Many believers, I am told, have the same doubts, and yet have the knack of putting their doubts to sleep and entering ardently into the communion of the faithful. The process is incomprehensible to me. So far as I understand it, such believers are moved by their desires to the extent of letting them rule not only their conduct but their thoughts. An unbelievers desires have, apparently, less power over his reason. Perhaps this is only another way of saying that his strongest desire is to be as reasonable as he can. How­ever the condition be interpreted, the consequence is the same. An honest unbeliever can no more make himself believe against his reason than he can make himself free of the pull of gravitation. For myself, I feel no obligation whatever to believe. I might once have felt it prudent to keep silence, for I perceive that the race of men, while sheep in credulity, are wolves for conformity; but just now, happily, in this breathing-spell of toleration, there are so many varieties of belief that even an unbeliever may speak out.

In so doing I must answer certain secondary questions which unbelievers are often asked. Does it not persuade me, one question runs, to realize that many learned men have pondered upon supernat­ural matters and have been won over to belief? I answer, not in the least. With respect to the gods, revelation, and immortality no man is enough more learned than his fellows to have the right to insist that they follow him into the regions about which all men are ignorant. I am not a par­ticle more impressed by some good old mans conviction that he is in the confidence of the gods than I am by any boys conviction that there are fish in the horse-pond from which no fish has ever been taken. Does it not impress me to see some good old woman serene in the faith of a blessed immortality? No more than it impresses me to see a little girl full of trust in the universal munificence of a Christmas saint. Am I not moved by the spectacle of a great tradition of worship which has broadened out over continents and which brings all its worshipers punctually together in the observance of noble and dignified rites? Yes, but I am moved precisely by that as I am moved by the spectacle of men everywhere putting their seed seasonably in the ground, tending its increase, and patiently gathering in their harvests.

Finally, do I never suspect in myself some moral obliquity, or do I not at least regret the bleak outlook of unbelief? On these points I am, in my own mind, as secure as I know how to be. There is no moral obligation to believe what is unbelievable, any more than there is a moral obligation to do what is undoable. Even in religion, honesty is a virtue. Obliquity, I should say, shows itself rather in prudent pretense or in voluntary self-delusion. Furthermore, the unbelievers have, as I read history, done less harm to the world than the believers. They have not filled it with savage wars or snarled casuistries, with crusades or perse­cutions, with complacency or ignorance. They have, instead, done what they could to fill it with knowledge and beauty, with temperance and justice, with manners and laughter. They have numbered among themselves some of the most distinguished specimens of mankind. And when they have been undistinguished, they have surely not been infe­rior to the believers in the fine art of minding their own affairs and so of enlarging the territories of peace.

Nor is the outlook of unbelief, to my way of thinking, a bleak one. It is merely rooted in courage and not in fear. Belief is still in the plight of those ancient races who out of a lack of knowledge peopled the forest with satyrs and the sea with ominous monsters and the ends of the earth with misshapen anthropophagi. So the pessimists among believers have peopled the void with witches and devils, and the opti­mists among them have peopled it with angels and gods. Both alike have been afraid to furnish the house of life simply. They have cluttered it with the furniture of faith. Much of this furniture, the most reasonable unbeliever would never think of denying, is very beautiful. There are breathing myths, there are comforting legends, there are consoling hopes. But they have, as the unbeliever sees them, no authority beyond that of poetry. That is, they may captivate if they can, but they have no right to insist upon conquering. Beliefs, like tastes, may differ. The unbelievers taste and belief are austere. In the wilderness of worlds he does not yield to the temptation to belittle the others by magnifying his own. Among the dangers of chance he does not look for safety to any watchful providence whose special concern he imagines he is. Though he knows that knowledge is imperfect, he trusts it alone. He he takes, therefore, the less delight in metaphysics, he takes the more in physics. Each discovery of a new truth brings him a vivid joy. He builds himself up, so far as he can, upon truth, and barricades himself with it. Thus doing, he never sags into superstition, but grows steadily more robust and blithe in his courage. However many fears he may prove unable to escape, he does not multiply them in his imagination and then combat them with his wishes. Austerity may be simplicity and not bleakness.

Does the unbeliever lack certain of the gentler virtues of the believer, the quiet confidence, the unquestioning obedience? He may, yet it must always be remembered that the greatest believers are the greatest tyrants. If the freedom rather than the tyranny of faith is to better the world, then the betterment lies in the hands, I think, of the unbelievers. At any rate, I take my stand with them.

Bertrand Russell: Am I an Atheist? (1947)

Part of the ongoing Atheist Literacy Project

I speak as one who was intended by my father to be brought up as a Rationalist. He was quite as much of a Rationalist as I am, but he died when I was three years old, and the Court of Chancery decided that I was to have the benefits of a Christian education.

I think perhaps the Court of Chancery might have regretted that since. It does not seem to have done as much good as they hoped. Perhaps you may say that it would be rather a pity if Christian education were to cease, because you would then get no more Rationalists.

They arise chiefly out of reaction to a system of education which considers it quite right that a father should decree that his son should be brought up as a Muggletonian, we will say, or brought up on any other kind of nonsense, but he must on no account be brought up to think rationally. When I was young that was considered to be illegal.

Sin And The Bishops

Since I became a Rationalist I have found that there is still considerable scope in the world for the practical importance of a rationalist outlook, not only in matters of geology, but in all sorts of practical matters, such as divorce and birth control, and a question which has come up quite recently, artificial insemination, where bishops tell us that something is gravely sinful, but it is only gravely sinful because there is some text in the Bible about it. It is not gravely sinful because it does anybody harm, and that is not the argument. As long as you can say, and as long as you can persuade Parliament to go on saying, that a thing must not be done solely because there is some text in the Bible about it, so long obviously there is great need of Rationalism in practice.

As you may know, I got into great trouble in the United States solely because, on some practical issues, I considered that the ethical advice given in the Bible was not conclusive, and that on some points one should act differently from what the Bible says. On this ground it was decreed by a Law Court that I was not a fit person to teach in any university in the United States, so that I have some practical ground for preferring Rationalism to other outlooks.

Don’t Be Too Certain!

The question of how to define Rationalism is not altogether an easy one. I do not think that you could define it by rejection of this or that Christian dogma. It would be perfectly possible to be a complete and absolute Rationalist in the true sense of the term and yet accept this or that dogma.

The question is how to arrive at your opinions and not what your opinions are. The thing in which we believe is the supremacy of reason. If reason should lead you to orthodox conclusions, well and good; you are still a Rationalist. To my mind the essential thing is that one should base one’s arguments upon the kind of grounds that are accepted in science, and one should not regard anything that one accepts as quite certain, but only as probable in a greater or a less degree. Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.

Proof of God

Here there comes a practical question which has often troubled me. Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place they always ask me what is my religion.

I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.


There is exactly the same degree of possibility and likelihood of the existence of the Christian God as there is of the existence of the Homeric God. I cannot prove that either the Christian God or the Homeric gods do not exist, but I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration. Therefore, I suppose that that on these documents that they submit to me on these occasions I ought to say “Atheist”, although it has been a very difficult problem, and sometimes I have said one and sometimes the other without any clear principle by which to go.

When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others. It is much more nearly certain that we are assembled here tonight than it is that this or that political party is in the right. Certainly there are degrees of certainty, and one should be very careful to emphasize that fact, because otherwise one is landed in an utter skepticism, and complete skepticism would, of course, be totally barren and completely useless.


One must remember that some things are very much more probable than others and may be so probable that it is not worth while to remember in practice that they are not wholly certain, except when it comes to questions of persecution.

If it comes to burning somebody at the stake for not believing it, then it is worth while to remember that after all he may be right, and it is not worth while to persecute him.

In general, if a man says, for instance, that the earth is flat, I am quite willing that he should propagate his opinion as hard as he likes. He may, of course, be right but I do not think he is. In practice you will, I think, do better to assume that the earth is round, although, of course, you may be mistaken. Therefore, I do not think we should go in for complete skepticism, but for a doctrine of degrees of probability.

I think that, on the whole, that is the kind of doctrine that the world needs. The world has become very full of new dogmas. The old dogmas have perhaps decayed, but new dogmas have arisen and, on the whole, I think that a dogma is harmful in proportion to its novelty. New dogmas are much worse that old ones.

The Sacrament of Penance

It is comforting to know that Pope Benedict last week got rid of three men who raped children.

The famously cautious (in all such cases) pontiff removed three men who served the archdiocese of Boston, long since famous for having a track record in paedophilia.

According to the Globe “The Archdiocese … identified the men as Frederick J. Cartier, Louis J. Govoni, and Frederick Guthrie [and] said in the statement that the men had asked to be removed from the clerical state. …They may no longer function in any capacity as priests, with the exception of offering absolution to the dying.”

Great theology: They can’t say Mass, but they can still forgive a repentant sinner his sins, in an emergency. And in following established recent protocol, the Church has granted their request “to be freed from their ordination,” in the interest of sparing the wretched lot a canonical trial.

Does anyone else see the treachery in this deal-making?

The Globe reported that “Cartier was ordained in 1963, was granted a leave of absence in 1979, and has not been connected to the archdiocese for more than 20 years…. According to, Cartier was accused in 2002 of molesting a 13-year-old while he was serving at a Woburn parish in the 1970s…

“Govoni, who was ordained in 1972, has not been associated with the archdiocese since 1978…. He was accused in the 1970s of sexually molesting boys at Archbishop Williams High School. He was not publicly linked to the allegations until 2003 when his personnel record was made public.In 2003, Govoni was working as a substitute teacher in Duxbury and was fired after the allegations became public, according to published reports.

“Guthrie, who was ordained in 1962, left the Boston Archdiocese in 2001. He later pleaded guilty in New Hampshire to charges that he used a computer to solicit a minor for sex in the early 2000s.”

Now their “resignations” have been solicited and accepted. They have been thrown to the American judicial system as criminals and turned in their collars–well, mostly.

But I say that’s not enough. Not only is the Church still not getting it, the Catholic faithful aren’t getting it either. Laicization is the only serious penalty the Church can impose on a priest, now that raking flesh and the rack are out of season.

But it is not the only thing the Church can do in cases of viciousness. For almost twenty years now, as the horrid facts about predatory priests have become clear, we’ve been persuaded (mainly by lawyers) that the Church needs to realize that these are crimes, not just sins. Offenders need to be tried for criminal offenses. And the penalties imposed should be the same penalties anyone should expect for foul acts committed against children. Agreed. That much is absolutely clear. Treating these acts as sins is not sufficient, especially when the punishment for sin is usually delayed until the hereafter.

The focus has been almost exclusively on treating a priest the same as anyone else. This has turned out to be a conscience-free approach to the issue, however. The Church, to save money and face, is more than happy (except for the lawsuits and bankruptcies) to throw the predators to their victims and their lawyers. It is by far the least expensive thing to do in the long term–especially prestige-wise. A Church in compliance with the law can be seen as a Church that is doing the right thing.

But it’s not.

These men should be tried publicly in ecclesiastical courts according to canon law. No option, no deal, no “May I please have your resignation, Father, sorry to ask but there have been complaints.”

No settling these cases by bureaucrats in offices whose signatures represent justice. That was Joseph Ratzinger’s job, and his signature, before he became pope.

In addition to breaking laws, they have violated their priestly vows, blasphemed against conscience, and every moral commandment the Church is supposed to defend. For those who do not think justice is winged but does have a cash register, perhaps these violations don’t amount to much. But in processing the resignations of wayward clerics over six to a dozen years on for crimes (sins) committed three decades and more ago, the Church is granting a kind of pre-absolution to the guilty. Resignation will do? They have suffered enough? The Church has done everything it can to deal with the situation, including all of the meetings the Pope has had with victims and their families? This is not resolution, or acknowledgement or ecclesiastical due process. It’s a dance. It is the Church saying, yes, of course we must turn these people in to the sheriff, and then (after a time) throw them out. But not in such a way that we are embarrassed by the throwing.

No, I do not know what is in their hearts today. And that is not relevant. Even the church’s forgiveness, as Dorothy Sayers once reminded someone, is merely activated by contrition. It’s satisfied by penance. You pay for what you broke, no matter how sorry you are. The current process insists on neither. There can therefore be no effective forgiveness. The hypocrisy continues: the Church reserves the right to forgive and to absolve on its own terms on the pretext that it invented for its own splendid isolation from the state: that it answers to a higher judge.

Dorothy Sayers

There are Church laws governing the behavior of promiscuous and abusive men; there are procedures for appointing church lawyers, tribunals, admission of evidence, witnesses and prosecution. What the Church knows is that a formal canonical trial (a trial governed by canon law) would be embarrassing and time-consuming. And the result–laicization–would be about the same. Ergo, as Catholic philosophers used to say, let’s make it short and sweet. Go straight to the penalty.

Accordingly, the matters are dealt with in diocesan offices, forwarded to the Vatican, where they are reviewed (slowly) by committees who cajole the priests into resigning.

The effect: the Church saves time, money, procedural paperwork and face. It reduces the men to the “lay state”–except not really because the theology of ordination makes the priest “a priest forever.” What it really does is strike them from the payroll and forbid them to say mass and hear confessions. It restrains them.

Benedict’s predecessor was even more cautious: he ordered then Cardinal Ratzinger to drag his feet in all such cases because of the shortage of priests. Better a bunch of bad apples than no apples at all.

Catholics need to know that the Church can do more to assuage their sense of outrage within the Church than tossing the rotters out. The “office trial” is a modern phenomenon. It happens largely on paper. The priest in question rarely sees a tribunal face to face. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Church could insist that such cases are too important to be handled behind closed doors. Transparency of its justice system is required.

It could summon the priest to appear. There can be real interrogations. Until the nineteenth century, this is the way it would have been done. Even in the sixteenth doctrinally dicey priests got their trials and bishops and interrogators were skilled investigators. Martin Luther got several, but never apparently committed crimes against humanity.

The modern rule in the case of a priest accused of serious moral lapses requires a panel of at least three judges for ordination annulment or laicization (can. 1425 §1). Appellate procedures exist, extending right up through the curia (the Pope’s cabinet) and the Pope himself (the papal Signatura, which is final). The procedure is inquisitorial. With permisison, it could be made public.

To avoid this display, the Church has been happy to hide behind the criminal law and secular justice. But this is foul play. I suspect a great many Catholics would welcome the sight of indignant bishops questioning a priest about how many boys he had raped and whether at any point in the course of events he considered that what he was doing was vile and sinful.

Boston's Cardinal Law, author of the priest-shell-game

“Vile” and “sinful” are theological terms. But the Church believes in them, or says it does. It has a method of applying justice and judgement on its own terms. Why aren’t Catholics insisting on it? Because when all is said and done, the money settlements and law suits don’t get to the heart of the hypocrisy. Not nearly. Crime is crime, but sin as Shakespeare said stinketh to high heaven. Church trials would at least be a means of ventilation.

And one final suggestion: Let them be televised on EWTN. It will triple their audience.

“Existentialism is a Humanism” — Jean Paul Sartre (edited)

In the ongoing quest to create an educated and informed humanism based on classic texts, this from 1946

And when we speak of ‘abandonment’ – a favorite word of Heidegger – we only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular moralism which seeks to suppress God at the least possible expense.

Towards 1880, when the French professors endeavoured to formulate a secular morality, they said something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis, so we will do without it. However, if we are to have morality, a society and a law-abiding world, it is essential that certain values should be taken seriously; they must have an a priori existence ascribed to them. It must be considered obligatory a priori to be honest, not to lie, not to beat one’s wife, to bring up children and so forth; so we are going to do a little work on this subject, which will enable us to show that these values exist all the same, inscribed in an intelligible heaven although, of course, there is no God. In other words – and this is, I believe, the purport of all that we in France call radicalism – nothing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall rediscover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself.

The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.

He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. – We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does. The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never regard a grand passion as a destructive torrent upon which a man is swept into certain actions as by fate, and which, therefore, is an excuse for them. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion. Neither will an existentialist think that a man can find help through some sign being vouchsafed upon earth for his orientation: for he thinks that the man himself interprets the sign as he chooses. He thinks that every man, without any support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man. …

[after a long anecdote, Sartre takes up the idea of “despair”]

As for “despair,” the meaning of this expression is extremely simple. It merely means that we limit ourselves to a reliance upon that which is within our wills, or within the sum of the probabilities which render our action feasible. Whenever one wills anything, there are always these elements of probability. If I am counting upon a visit from a friend, who may be coming by train or by tram, I presuppose that the train will arrive at the appointed time, or that the tram will not be derailed. I remain in the realm of possibilities; but one does not rely upon any possibilities beyond those that are strictly concerned in one’s action. Beyond the point at which the possibilities under consideration cease to affect my action, I ought to disinterest myself. For there is no God and no prevenient design, which can adapt the world and all its possibilities to my will. When Descartes said, “Conquer yourself rather than the world,” what he meant was, at bottom, the same – that we should act without hope.

Quietism is the attitude of people who say, “let others do what I cannot do.” The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action. It goes further, indeed, and adds, “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.”

Hence we can well understand why some people are horrified by our teaching. For many have but one resource to sustain them in their misery, and that is to think, “Circumstances have been against me, I was worthy to be something much better than I have been. I admit I have never had a great love or a great friendship; but that is because I never met a man or a woman who were worthy of it; if I have not written any very good books, it is because I had not the leisure to do so; or, if I have had no children to whom I could devote myself it is because I did not find the man I could have lived with. So there remains within me a wide range of abilities, inclinations and potentialities, unused but perfectly viable, which endow me with a worthiness that could never be inferred from the mere history of my actions.” …

But in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art. … No doubt this thought may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of his life. On the other hand, it puts everyone in a position to understand that reality alone is reliable; that dreams, expectations and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes, expectations unfulfilled; that is to say, they define him negatively, not positively. Nevertheless, when one says, “You are nothing else but what you live,” it does not imply that an artist is to be judged solely by his works of art, for a thousand other things contribute no less to his definition as a man. What we mean to say is that a man is no other than a series of undertakings, that he is the sum, the organisation, the set of relations that constitute these undertakings.

In the light of all this, what people reproach us with is not, after all, our pessimism, but the sternness of our optimism. The existentialist says that the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. What counts is the total commitment, and it is not by a particular case or particular action that you are committed altogether.

We have now, I think, dealt with a certain number of the reproaches against existentialism. You have seen that it cannot be regarded as a philosophy of quietism since it defines man by his action; nor as a pessimistic description of man, for no doctrine is more optimistic, the destiny of man is placed within himself. Nor is it an attempt to discourage man from action since it tells him that there is no hope except in his action, and that the one thing which permits him to have life is the deed. Upon this level therefore, what we are considering is an ethic of action and self-commitment. …

…Every theory which begins with man, outside of this moment of self-attainment, is a theory which thereby suppresses the truth, for outside of the Cartesian cogito, all objects are no more than probable, and any doctrine of probabilities which is not attached to a truth will crumble into nothing. In order to define the probable one must possess the true. Before there can be any truth whatever, then, there must be an absolute truth, and there is such a truth which is simple, easily attained and within the reach of everybody; it consists in one’s immediate sense of one’s self.

In the second place, this theory alone is compatible with the dignity of man, it is the only one which does not make man into an object. All kinds of materialism lead one to treat every man including oneself as an object – that is, as a set of pre-determined reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair or a stone. Our aim is precisely to establish the human kingdom as a pattern of values in distinction from the material world. But the subjectivity which we thus postulate as the standard of truth is no narrowly individual subjectivism, for as we have demonstrated, it is not only one’s own self that one discovers in the cogito, but those of others too.

…Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to that of Kant, when we say “I think” we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves. Thus the man who discovers himself directly in the cogito also discovers all the others, and discovers them as the condition of his own existence. He recognises that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which one says one is spiritual, or that one is wicked or jealous) unless others recognise him as such. I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself. Under these conditions, the intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine, and which cannot think or will without doing so either for or against me. Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of “inter-subjectivity”. It is in this world that man has to decide what he is and what others are.

Furthermore, although it is impossible to find in each and every man a universal essence that can be called human nature, there is nevertheless a human universality of condition. It is not by chance that the thinkers of today are so much more ready to speak of the condition than of the nature of man. By his condition they understand, with more or less clarity, all the limitations which a priori define man’s fundamental situation in the universe. His historical situations are variable: man may be born a slave in a pagan society or may be a feudal baron, or a proletarian. But what never vary are the necessities of being in the world, of having to labor and to die there.

These limitations are neither subjective nor objective, or rather there is both a subjective and an objective aspect of them. Objective, because we meet with them everywhere and they are everywhere recognisable: and subjective because they are lived and are nothing if man does not live them – if, that is to say, he does not freely determine himself …

What is at the very heart and center of existentialism, is the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realises himself in realising a type of humanity – a commitment always understandable, to no matter whom in no matter what epoch – and its bearing upon the relativity of the cultural pattern which may result from such absolute commitment….There is no difference between free being – being as self-committal, as existence choosing its essence – and absolute being. And there is no difference whatever between being as an absolute, temporarily localised that is, localised in history – and universally intelligible being.

First they tax us with anarchy; then they say, “You cannot judge others, for there is no reason for preferring one purpose to another”; finally, they may say, “Everything being merely voluntary in this choice of yours, you give away with one hand what you pretend to gain with the other.” These three are not very serious objections. As to the first, to say that it does not matter what you choose is not correct. In one sense choice is possible, but what is not possible is not to choose. I can always choose, but I must know that if I do not choose, that is still a choice. This, although it may appear merely formal, is of great importance as a limit to fantasy and caprice. For, when I confront a real situation – for example, that I am a sexual being, able to have relations with a being of the other sex and able to have children – I am obliged to choose my attitude to it, and in every respect I bear the responsibility of the choice which, in committing myself, also commits the whole of humanity. Even if my choice is determined by no a priori value whatever, it can have nothing to do with caprice:… Rather let us say that the moral choice is comparable to the construction of a work of art.

But here I must at once digress to make it quite clear that we are not propounding an aesthetic morality, for our adversaries are disingenuous enough to reproach us even with that. I mention the work of art only by way of comparison. That being understood, does anyone reproach an artist, when he paints a picture, for not following rules established a priori. Does one ever ask what is the picture that he ought to paint? As everyone knows, there is no pre-defined picture for him to make; the artist applies himself to the composition of a picture, and the picture that ought to be made is precisely that which he will have made. As everyone knows, there are no aesthetic values a priori, but there are values which will appear in due course in the coherence of the picture, in the relation between the will to create and the finished work. No one can tell what the painting of tomorrow will be like; one cannot judge a painting until it is done. What has that to do with morality? We are in the same creative situation. We never speak of a work of art as irresponsible; when we are discussing a canvas by Picasso, we understand very well that the composition became what it is at the time when he was painting it, and that his works are part and parcel of his entire life….

Existentialism dispenses with any judgment of this sort: an existentialist will never take man as the end, since man is still to be determined. And we have no right to believe that humanity is something to which we could set up a cult, after the manner of Auguste Comte. The cult of humanity ends in Comtian humanism, shut-in upon itself, and – this must be said – in Fascism. We do not want a humanism like that.

But there is another sense of the word, of which the fundamental meaning is this:

Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence. There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism.

This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.

You can see from these few reflections that nothing could be more unjust than the objections people raise against us. Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position. Its intention is not in the least that of plunging men into despair.

And if by despair one means as the Christians do – any attitude of unbelief, the despair of the existentialists is something different.

Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God.

It declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confining their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.

The Judgement of the Dead

There are a number of reasons Christianity seems absurd to many people. In the third century, the pagan philosopher Porphyry blamed its speciousness on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, the “disgusting idea that bodies will be raised fom the grave,” with bits of desiccated flesh flying through the air like a fast rewind of an Egyptian plague. He poses the case of a boatload of Christian fishermen (recalling the fact that Jesus’ followers earned their keep that way) being wrecked at sea, their bodies eaten by sea creatures, regurgitated or defecated and swirled into the ocean depths where they mingle with sand and broken shell. Will these be raised up? Does the Christian God not have better things to do–because the Greek gods certainly did.


Since Porphyry’s day the treasury of Christian doctrine has increased dramatically, largely though not exclusively on the Catholic side: entries like the Real (physical) presence of Christ in the Eucharist, forgiveness of sin, and, related to both, the stature of the priest as an avatar of Jesus. Then there’s the Assumption of Mary (proclaimed 1950) not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (proclaimed 1854, and about her, not Him), and the doctrine of Purgatory, a tribute to why bad things happen to good people, based on a medieval credit-rating system where almost everyone had scores between 300 and 550 and had to pay back the debt in millennial installments of woe and agony. –Unless the Church intervened. And yes, still very much on the books.

Mind you, most Christians and many Catholics don’t believe these things anymore. According to a 2010 Pew Research poll, 45% of Catholics hadn’t heard of the real presence, which means that almost half of practicing Catholics have no idea what they’re practicing. To hide their embarrassment, parishes are laying on weekly “Eucharistic Adoration” opportunities, the kind of labor my birthright-Irish grandmother found intrusive to her complacent religious life, thus not likely to attract the Facebook crowd to fall on their knees. Large numbers of Catholic girls think the Church’s teaching on abortion has an opt-out provision, or varies from diocese to diocese or priest to priest. They confuse it obviously with the celibacy rules.

I’ve often thought I’d like to give a course called “What You Don’t Know That You’re Expected to Believe Anyway,” as a balance to the Church’s course in “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You, So Let’s Not Talk About It.”

Which is exactly what’s happening in the Church. Since there has to be some connection between doctrinal literacy and belief, it isn’t shocking that the Church, along with its evangelical allies, has chosen to fight the battle for relevance in the forward trenches of sexual ethics and not on behalf of positions its adherents find boring–so early-second millennium.

Of the number of women having abortions who self-identify religiously, the statistics for Catholics and Protestants are dead-even at around 32% each. For Jews, less than 2%, but for other reasons. No wonder the cunning and soon-to-be saint John Paul II started his Gospel of Life movement, a recipe for being against war, capital punishment, murder, violence, and (by cross-ranking inclusion) abortion. His sainthood will be based on changing the subject from obedience and doctrine to love and peace. (For it!) and creating the illusion that almost everything else is a mystery and a symbol–though in this he has a very long tradition to fall back on. Hating abortion is the key symbol, and has hence become the core doctrine.

With respect to traditional doctrine, the sort of thing that had to do with fighting the devil and getting your soul to heaven, Catholic Christianity has become an episode of Fawlty Towers –the one where (confronted with German tourists but trying his best to be English about it) Basil reminds his staff, “Don’t mention the War.” Likewise, in these inattentive times, when Christianity is all about loving God through hating a woman’s right to choose, it’s important not to mention eschatology: Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell, the core of Christian faith.

So I want to mention it. Eschatology. The four last things.

Let’s talk about the second, since the first is pretty obvious and the third and fourth depend on the second. They are worth talking about because this is what the Church has a right to talk about, and also because in a shruggish kind of way many Jews believe it too, and in a much more robust way Protestants and Muslims believe it. We will be judged.

Let’s say that if you don’t believe in this, no fair calling yourself a Christian, whereas whatever you think about abortion is contingent on a theological principle. Its moral character is not self-explanatory without other ideas behind it. Abortion is a real decision, made by real people in real time, with real consequences. The church can declare it is wrong, sinful and hateful to God, but without judgement, the teaching is a bit toothless, isn’t it? You see my point.

The Christian church worked itself into a corner very early. The early and medieval church couldn’t promise heaven right away because they knew that the bodies of dead Christians weren’t spared the ravages of the grave. They looked just like dead pagans and Jews after six months. The doctrine of the soul, which the church copped from various writers and cobbled together over time (it isn’t biblical, not even New Testament) and blended with Jewish ideas of “resurrection,” was a great help: Bodies die, souls fly off somewhere, but if this is true they need to be judged quickly for what they’ve done “through the body.” Through the body–whose corrupt state pretty much tells you all you need to know about human nature.

Thus was born the Two-Judgement Theology of the Western Church. We are so important to God that he has time to judge us twice. A first, or particular judgement at the moment of death, a final judgement when body and soul are recombined on the Last Day.

The Last Judgement is not an appeal process. It’s reckoned that first and last will be identical in verdict and punishment, though the soul gets a head start on the body in enduring everlasting pain. The only reason for there being two is the distance between the reality of death (now) and the uncertainty of the time of the end of the world and Christ’s coming (then, when?). The Now is dull, personal and predictable. The Then is fiery and spectacular (cf. Mk 13) and brings with it that realignment of soul and body parts that caused Porphyry to break out in fits of laughter.

If this sounds complicated, imagine the capacity of an unpaid Irish nun to explain it to a skeptical twelve year old. Scenario: “Well, Joseph, you just ask too many questions, don’t you?”

The particular judgement has no textual support though there is a “source” that Christians tried to introduce into the mix by making people think it was old and Jewish, called The Testament of Abraham. It probably comes from the third century CE (AD) though some scholars want it to be older. It’s an entertaining fantasy of how an aged Abraham gets visions (very Christian visions) of angels and heaven–and judgement. He meets Michael, the “captain of the angels” (archangel) who is perpetually darting back and forth between the Oak of Mamre and heaven with messages. Heaven has gates. A tiny gate for the chosen few, a big gate that seems to be an elevator door to the netherworld:

“And Abraham asked the chief-captain Michael, What is this that we behold? And the chief-captain said, These things that thou seest, holy Abraham, are the judgment and recompense. And behold the angel holding the soul in his hand, and he brought it before the judge, and the judge said to one of the angels that served him, Open me this book, and find me the sins of this soul. And opening the book he found its sins and its righteousness equally balanced, and he neither gave it to the tormentors, nor to those that were saved, but set it in the midst.”

The tale even has reality TV-emanations: Abraham witnesses the judgement of a woman who is condemned for having sex with her daughter’s husband, killing her daughter, and then claiming she remembers nothing. Boooo! said the ancient studio audience.

The later history of the “particular judgement” is bland. It includes Tertullian’s idea that the distance between death and final judgement is a waiting period for the soul, full of excruciatingly conscious thoughts about where it fell short–but leaving open the possibility of a surprise reprieve; Hippolytus’s notion that the judgement is really like sorting beads, for future reference, when God decides to make the necklace; and–of course–Augustine. Liking structure more than evidence, he decides that at death souls are sorted into bundles (four in all) ranging from blessed to damned–but unlike Tertullian, no waiting–first come first served for the unambiguously saintly or beastly, like the 4.45 PM Seniors’ Special at a Florida restaurant. But note: there is no agreement here. Not one of these writers has any idea what he’s talking about. There is no control group, there are no interviews. Not even a good text worth debating. It is belief heaped on belief.

The discussion of Judgement up through the medieval period looms large. It connected to every other important doctrine, from saints, to sacraments, to what the Church could dispense to you through its “treasury of merits”–a fund of superfluous grace achieved by holy men and women who didn’t use up all they had–and the sale of indulgences. At the Reformation, largely due to Calvin, the growth of speculation and imagery was brought under control, but the belief that souls are judged after death (Calvin said, “consciously, so that they know their fate”) was retained.

Indulgence Certificate

The Big Deal, of course, is not merely what happens after you die but what happens when everything explodes and the Son of Man appears in the sky to call you home. That much, at least, is biblical–the core of Christian belief in the second coming, complete with a perennial Protestant temptation to pinpoint doomsday (the Old English word dome/doom means judgement) and humiliate your opponent with statistics drawn from the Book of Revelation, which he will call Revelations.

The Last Judgement was at least “Biblical”–which means simply that the idea of it could be located in scripture. Matthew 25 contains a significant passage about separating the sheep and goats, and there is a disturbing passage in Revelation 20.11-13 about the “dead” coming before a great white throne. As to how you get there, St Paul worried that the Corinthian Christians were asking too many questions. In one piece of guesswork (1 Thessalonians, maybe his literary debut) he thinks that we will all be swept up “to meet the Lord in the air”–frightening prospect; in another, that we will need a change of clothes before the interview, and so “will be changed [into a new kind of flesh] in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15.51-2). Either way, spectacular.

The Church fathers were limited in their guesswork by scriptural controls that didn’t apply to the “particular judgement” and the central belief that certain passages in Daniel and Isaiah could be used to prove that, at the time of judgement, the dead would be raised for the purpose of giving an account of themselves. Matthew gets so excited by the idea that (27.52-54) he has a few of the dead being raised “prematurely” at the time of the crucifixion, but then puts them on hold until the resurrection of Jesus, when they’re permitted to enter Jerusalem in their burial cloths.

And so, back to Porphyry. Why are the dead raised? To be judged. Why are they judged? Because death is not bad enough. The God of life, who made you to die, wants more from you. Wakened from a neural sleep they are roused to undergo torture or experience the pleasures of heaven–always unimpressively and unenticingly described in Christian thought.

Paradise, Persian

There are no virgins, or their male equivalents, or grapes, or nonintoxicating intoxicating beverages–no Paradise in the voluptuous Middle Eastern sense, not even in the Genesis Garden of Eden sense. Nothing that would make you want to be there for a minute, let alone eternally. The “vision of God,” that later became the reason for wanting to go to heaven, was Christianized platonic faddle from the early Middle Ages. Mark Twain had it right.

Worst of all, there will be lines. Long queues extending for centuries. Maybe the angels will let women who were at least six months pregnant when they died go first. –The ones who died because they killed themselves rather than tell their parents they were pregnant will go to hell. The ones who ended their pregnancies will go to hell. The ones who died because they were told they had to deliver a child, and ended up with pulmonary insufficiency because they couldn’t sustain a pregnancy at twelve years old will go to heaven. Such is the divine mystery. Such is the will of God.


What I ask is that the Church start talking about this again: something it has taught for two millennia. Something it claims to know about because it invented it. Talk about the texts. Talk about the disagreements, the stories, the history, the imagery. Talk about how Judgement happens, what to expect. Talk about the evidence. Do not say it is a mystery of faith, like the Eucharist. If it is, then say you don’t understand it either and stop talking about it. You cannot talk convincingly about the price of “sins” like abortion if you can’t explain this.

If I convert to Islam or profess my atheism loudly enough, can I be diverted to the Wide Gate and get started on my punishment? I would prefer that.

If I feel that I’m at least as virtuous as my church-going neighbor but happen to be a Buddhist, is there room for appeal?

And before anyone says I am asking silly questions and it is all much more complicated and mysterious than I am making it: ask your friendly priest or minister to explain what he believes, what his church teaches, and then get back to me.

Darwin Profile on Ancient Coin!

The yaw coin dates from the 4th century BCE and was discovered in southern Gaza where the cult of YHWH, the God of the Hebrew Bible,was dominant. Its official description is this:

Langdon (1931):

“A coin from Gaza in Southern Philista, fourth century BC, the period of the Jewish subjection to the last of the Persian kings, has the only known representation of this Hebrew deity. The letters YHW are incised just above the hawk(?) which the god holds in his outstretched left hand, Fig. 23. He wears a himation, leaving the upper part of the body bare, and sits upon a winged wheel. The right arm is wrapped in his garment. At his feet is a mask. Because of the winged chariot and mask it has been suggested that Yaw had been identified with Dionysus on account of a somewhat similar drawing of the Greek deity on a vase where he rides in a chariot drawn by a satyr. The coin was certainly minted under Greek influence, and consequently others have compared Yaw on his winged chariot to Triptolemos of Syria, who is represented on a wagon drawn by two dragons. … Yaw of Gaza really represents the Hebrew, Phoenician and Aramaic Sun-god, El, Elohim, whom the monotheistic tendencies of the Hebrews had long since identified with Yaw…Sanchounyathon…based his history upon Yerombalos, a priest of Yeuo, undoubtedly the god Yaw, who is thus proved to have been worshipped at Gebal as early as 1000 BC.” (pp. 43-44. Langdon. 1931)

Yaw image (drawn) with Darwin looking on as he mounts his wheel or chariot.

It has interested scholars for generations that the officially monotheistic and iconoclastic Jews, whose laws strictly prohibited “graven images” of the sort used by pagan kings on their coins, would permit their national God to be represented in a blatantly Hellenistic way.

But that is only half the story. Upon close inspection it is clear that the coin is also miraculous. In the lower right a clear image of Charles Darwin in profile, accurate in detail right down to his flowing beard, appears.

Is Darwin trying to tell us something, proleptically? Is this the final refutation of all those skeptics who say that Darwin was an atheist? Or does the coin make some association between Darwin and Yahweh, perhaps suggesting that Darwin has been supplanted by the God of revelation who stole his wheel? Or is the coin an encrypted message, a token of a collaboration between God and Darwin in the evolutionary process? Is it possible that the face is a representation of Jesus and that Darwin was his direct descendant, or perhaps a reincarnation?

You must judge for yourself–but this is very exciting archaeology.

Yaw coin, Persia (?), 4th BCE


The Necessity of Atheism

I submit that any atheist, new, old, or in between, should be able to read and react to the essay that got Shelley expelled (“sent down”) from Oxford.

I think this partly because I think atheists are becoming illiterate about their own past, disconnected from the history of the risk their position entails.

And partly because they increasingly believe what they believe without inquiry, on the basis of what prestigious people have said or written. That is a religious approach, not a critical approach to religion. And that is as fatal for atheism as blind faith is for faith.

The poet was nineteen years old when he was called on by the proctors of the University to claim authorship of the essay, which he refused to repudiate even after his father intervened with his College.

The Necessity of Atheism
Percy Bysshe Shelley

There Is No God

This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.

A close examination of the validity of the proofs adduced to support any proposition is the only secure way of attaining truth, on the advantages of which it is unnecessary to descant: our knowledge of the existence, of a Deity is a subject of such importance that it cannot be too minutely investigated; in consequence of this conviction we proceed briefly and impartially to examine the proofs which have been adduced. It is necessary first to consider the nature of belief.

When a proposition is offered to the mind, It perceives the agreement or disagreement of the ideas of which it is composed. A perception of their agreement is termed belief. Many obstacles frequently prevent this perception from being immediate; these the mind attempts to remove in order that the perception may be distinct.

The mind is active in the investigation in order to perfect the state of perception of the relation which the component ideas of the proposition bear to each, which is passive; the investigation being confused with the perception has induced many falsely to imagine that the mind is active in belief. — that belief is an act of volition, — in consequence of which it may be regulated by the mind. Pursuing, continuing this mistake, they have attached a degree of criminality to disbelief; of which, in its nature, it is incapable: it is equally incapable of merit.

Belief, then, is a passion, the strength of which, like every other passion, is in precise proportion to the degrees of excitement.

The degrees of excitement are three.

The senses are the sources of all knowledge to the mind; consequently their evidence claims the strongest assent.

The decision of the mind, founded upon our own experience, derived from these sources, claims the next degree.

The experience of others, which addresses itself to the former one, occupies the lowest degree.

(A graduated scale, on which should be marked the capabilities of propositions to approach to the test of the senses, would be a just barometer of the belief which ought to be attached to them.)

Consequently no testimony can be admitted which is contrary to reason; reason is founded on the evidence of our senses.

Every proof may be referred to one of these three divisions: it is to be considered what arguments we receive from each of them, which should convince us of the existence of a Deity.

1st, The evidence of the senses. If the Deity should appear to us, if he should convince our senses of his existence, this revelation would necessarily command belief. Those to whom the Deity has thus appeared have the strongest possible conviction of his existence. But the God of Theologians is incapable of local visibility.

2d, Reason. It is urged that man knows that whatever is must either have had a beginning, or have existed from all eternity, he also knows that whatever is not eternal must have had a cause. When this reasoning is applied to the universe, it is necessary to prove that it was created: until that is clearly demonstrated we may reasonably suppose that it has endured from all eternity. We must prove design before we can infer a designer. The only idea which we can form of causation is derivable from the constant conjunction of objects, and the consequent inference of one from the other. In a base where two propositions are diametrically opposite, the mind believes that which is least incomprehensible; — it is easier to suppose that the universe has existed from all eternity than to conceive a being beyond its limits capable of creating it: if the mind sinks beneath the weight of one, is it an alleviation to increase the intolerability of the burthen?

The other argument, which is founded on a Man’s knowledge of his own existence, stands thus. A man knows not only that he now is, but that once he was not; consequently there must have been a cause. But our idea of causation is alone derivable from the constant conjunction of objects and the consequent Inference of one from the other; and, reasoning experimentally, we can only infer from effects caused adequate to those effects. But there certainly is a generative power which is effected by certain instruments: we cannot prove that it is inherent in these instruments” nor is the contrary hypothesis capable of demonstration: we admit that the generative power is incomprehensible; but to suppose that the same effect is produced by an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent being leaves the cause in the same obscurity, but renders it more incomprehensible.

3d, Testimony. It is required that testimony should not be contrary to reason. The testimony that the Deity convinces the senses of men of his existence can only be admitted by us, if our mind considers it less probable, that these men should have been deceived than that the Deity should have appeared to them. Our reason can never admit the testimony of men, who not only declare that they were eye-witnesses of miracles, but that the Deity was irrational; for he commanded that he should be believed, he proposed the highest rewards for, faith, eternal punishments for disbelief. We can only command voluntary actions; belief is not an act of volition; the mind is ever passive, or involuntarily active; from this it is evident that we have no sufficient testimony, or rather that testimony is insufficient to prove the being of a God. It has been before shown that it cannot be deduced from reason. They alone, then, who have been convinced by the evidence of the senses can believe it.

Hence it is evident that, having no proofs from either of the three sources of conviction, the mind cannot believe the existence of a creative God: it is also evident that, as belief is a passion of the mind, no degree of criminality is attachable to disbelief; and that they only are reprehensible who neglect to remove the false medium through which their mind views any subject of discussion. Every reflecting mind must acknowledge that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity.

God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi rests on the theist. Sir Isaac Newton says: Hypotheses non fingo, quicquid enim ex phaenomenis non deducitur hypothesis, vocanda est, et hypothesis vel metaphysicae, vel physicae, vel qualitatum occultarum, seu mechanicae, in philosophia locum non habent. To all proofs of the existence of a creative God apply this valuable rule. We see a variety of bodies possessing a variety of powers: we merely know their effects; we are in a estate of ignorance with respect to their essences and causes. These Newton calls the phenomena of things; but the pride of philosophy is unwilling to admit its ignorance of their causes. From the phenomena, which are the objects of our attempt to infer a cause, which we call God, and gratuitously endow it with all negative and contradictory qualities. From this hypothesis we invent this general name, to conceal our ignorance of causes and essences. The being called God by no means answers with the conditions prescribed by Newton; it bears every mark of a veil woven by philosophical conceit, to hide the ignorance of philosophers even from themselves.

They borrow the threads of its texture from the anthropomorphism of the vulgar. Words have been used by sophists for the same purposes, from the occult qualities of the peripatetics to the effuvium of Boyle and the crinities or nebulae of Herschel. God is represented as infinite, eternal, incomprehensible; he is contained under every predicate in non that the logic of ignorance could fabricate. Even his worshippers allow that it is impossible to form any idea of him: they exclaim with the French poet,

Pour dire ce qu’il est, il faut etre lui-meme. [To say something is, it is necessary for it to be what it is]

Lord Bacon says that atheism leaves to man reason, philosophy, natural piety, laws, reputation, and everything that can serve to conduct him to virtue; but superstition destroys all these, and erects itself into a tyranny over the understandings of men: hence atheism never disturbs the government, but renders man more clear- sighted, since he sees nothing beyond the boundaries of the present life. — Bacon’s Moral Essays.

The [Beginning here, and to the paragraph ending with Systeme de la Nature,” Shelley wrote in French. A free translation has been substituted.] first theology of man made him first fear and adore the elements themselves, the gross and material objects of nature; he next paid homage to the agents controlling the elements, lower genies, heroes or men gifted with great qualities. By force of reflection he sought to simplify things by submitting all nature to a single agent, spirit, or universal soul, which, gave movement to nature and all its branches. Mounting from cause to cause, mortal man has ended by seeing nothing; and it is in this obscurity that he has placed his God; it is in this darksome abyss that his uneasy imagination has always labored to fabricate chimeras, which will continue to afflict him until his knowledge of nature chases these phantoms which he has always so adored.

If we wish to explain our ideas of the Divinity we shall be obliged to admit that, by the word God, man has never been able to designate but the most hidden, the most distant and the most unknown cause of the effects which he saw; he has made use of his word only when the play of natural and known causes ceased to be visible to him; as soon as he lost the thread of these causes, or when his mind could no longer follow the chain, he cut the difficulty and ended his researches by calling God the last of the causes, that is to say, that which is beyond all causes that he knew; thus he but assigned a vague denomination to an unknown cause, at which his laziness or the limits of his knowledge forced him to stop. Every time we say that God is the author of some phenomenon, that signifies that we are ignorant of how such a phenomenon was able to operate by the aid of forces or causes that we know in nature. It is thus that the generality of mankind, whose lot is ignorance, attributes to the Divinity, not only the unusual effects which strike them, but moreover the most simple events, of which the causes are the most simple to understand by whomever is able to study them. In a word, man has always respected unknown causes, surprising effects that his ignorance kept him from unraveling. It was on this debris of nature that man raised the imaginary colossus of the Divinity.

If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction. In proportion as man taught himself, his strength and his resources augmented with his knowledge; science, the arts, industry, furnished him assistance; experience reassured him or procured for him means of resistance to the efforts of many causes which ceased to alarm as soon as they became understood. In a word, his terrors dissipated in the same proportion as his mind became enlightened. The educated man ceases to be superstitious.

It is only by hearsay (by word of mouth passed down from generation to generation) that whole peoples adore the God of their fathers and of their priests: authority, confidence, submission and custom with them take the place of conviction or of proofs: they prostrate themselves and pray, because their fathers taught them to prostrate themselves and pray: but why did their fathers fall on their knees? That is because, in primitive times, their legislators and their guides made it their duty. “Adore and believe,” they said, “the gods whom you cannot understand; have confidence in our profound wisdom; we know more than you about Divinity.” But why should I come to you? It is because God willed it thus; it is because God will punish you if you dare resist. But this God, is not he, then, the thing in question? However, man has always traveled in this vicious circle; his slothful mind has always made him find it easier to accept the judgment of others. All religious nations are founded solely on authority; all the religions of the world forbid examination and do not want one to reason; authority wants one to believe in God; this God is himself founded only on the authority of a few men who pretend to know him, and to come in his name and announce him on earth. A God made by man undoubtedly has need of man to make himself known to man.

Should it not, then, be for the priests, the inspired, the metaphysicians that should be reserved the conviction of the existence of a God, which they, nevertheless, say is so necessary for all mankind? But Can you find any harmony in the theological opinions of the different inspired ones or thinkers scattered over the earth? They themselves, who make a profession of adoring the same God, are they in Agreement? Are they content with the proofs that their colleagues bring of his existence? Do they subscribe unanimously to the ideas they present on nature, on his conduct, on the manner of understanding his pretended oracles? Is there a country on earth where the science of God is really perfect? Has this science anywhere taken the consistency and uniformity that we the see the science of man assume, even in the most futile crafts, the most despised trades. These words mind immateriality, creation, predestination and grace; this mass of subtle distinctions with which theology to everywhere filled; these so ingenious inventions, imagined by thinkers who have succeeded one another for so many centuries, have only, alas! confused things all the more, and never has man’s most necessary science, up to this time acquired the slightest fixity. For thousands of years the lazy dreamers have perpetually relieved one another to meditate on the Divinity, to divine his secret will, to invent the proper hypothesis to develop this important enigma. Their slight success has not discouraged the theological vanity: one always speaks of God: one has his throat cut for God: and this sublime being still remains the most unknown and the most discussed.

Man would have been too happy, if, limiting himself to the visible objects which interested him, he had employed, to perfect his real sciences, his laws, his morals, his education, one-half the efforts he has put into his researches on the Divinity. He would have been still wiser and still more fortunate if he had been satisfied to let his jobless guides quarrel among themselves, sounding depths capable of rendering them dizzy, without himself mixing in their senseless disputes. But it is the essence of ignorance to attach importance to that which it does not understand. Human vanity is so constituted that it stiffens before difficulties. The more an object conceals itself from our eyes, the greater the effort we make to seize it, because it pricks our pride, it excites our curiosity and it appears interesting. In fighting for his God everyone, in fact, fights only for the interests of his own vanity, which, of all the passions produced by the mal-organization of society, is the quickest to take offense, and the most capable of committing the greatest follies.

If, leaving for a moment the annoying idea that theology gives of a capricious God, whose partial and despotic decrees decide the fate of mankind, we wish to fix our eyes only on the pretended goodness, which all men, even trembling before this God, agree is ascribing to him, if we allow him the purpose that is lent him of having worked only for his own glory, of exacting the homage of intelligent beings; of seeking only in his works the well-being of mankind; how reconcile these views and these dispositions with the ignorance truly invincible in which this God, so glorious and so good, leaves the majority of mankind in regard to God himself? If God wishes to be known, cherished, thanked, why does he not show himself under his favorable features to all these intelligent beings by whom he wishes to be loved and adored? Why not manifest himself to the whole earth in an unequivocal manner, much more capable of convincing us than these private revelations which seem to accuse the Divinity of an annoying partiality for some of his creatures? The all-powerful, should he not heave more convincing means by which to show man than these ridiculous metamorphoses, these pretended incarnations, which are attested by writers so little in agreement among themselves? In place of so many miracles, invented to prove the divine mission of so many legislators revered by the different people of the world, the Sovereign of these spirits, could he not convince the human mind in an instant of the things he wished to make known to it? Instead of hanging the sun in the vault of the firmament, instead of scattering stars without order, and the constellations which fill space, would it not have been more in conformity with the views of a God so jealous of his glory and so well-intentioned for mankind, to write, in a manner not subject to dispute, his name, his attributes, his permanent wishes in ineffaceable characters, equally understandable to all the inhabitants of the earth? No one would then be able to doubt the existence of God, of his clear will, of his visible intentions. Under the eyes of this so terrible God no one would have the audacity to violate his commands, no mortal would dare risk attracting his anger: finally, no man would have the effrontery to impose on his name or to interpret his will according to his own fancy.

In fact, even while admitting the existence of the theological God, and the reality of his so discordant attributes which they impute to him, one can conclude nothing to authorize the conduct or the cult which one is prescribed to render him. Theology is truly the sieve of the Danaides. By dint of contradictory qualities and hazarded assertions it has, that is to say, so handicapped its God that it has made it impossible for him to act. If he is infinitely good, what reason should we have to fear him? If he is infinitely wise, why should we have doubts concerning our future? If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers? If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him? If he is just, why fear that he will punish the creatures that he has, filled with weaknesses? If grace does everything for them, what reason would he have for recompensing them? If he is all-powerful, how offend him, how resist him? If he is reasonable, how can he be angry at the blind, to whom he has given the liberty of being unreasonable? If he is immovable, by what right do we pretend to make him change his decrees? If he is inconceivable, why occupy ourselves with him? IF HE HAS SPOKEN, WHY IS THE UNIVERSE NOT CONVINCED? If the knowledge of a God is the most necessary, why is it not the most evident and the clearest. — Systame de la Nature. London, 1781.

The enlightened and benevolent Pliny thus Publicly professes himself an atheist, — Quapropter effigiem Del formamque quaerere imbecillitatis humanae reor. Quisquis est Deus (si modo est alius) et quacunque in parte, totus est gensus, totus est visus, totus auditus, totus animae, totus animi, totus sul. … Imperfectae vero in homine naturae praecipua solatia, ne deum quidem omnia. Namque nec sibi protest mortem consciscere, si velit, quod homini dedit optimum in tantis vitae poenis; nee mortales aeternitate donare, aut revocare defunctos; nec facere ut qui vixit non vixerit, qui honores gessit non gesserit, nullumque habere In praeteritum ius praeterquam oblivionts, atque (ut. facetis quoque argumentis societas haec cum, deo compuletur) ut bis dena viginti non sint, et multa similiter efficere non posse. — Per quaedeclaratur haud dubie naturae potentiam id quoque ease quod Deum vocamus. — Plin. Nat. Hist. cap. de Deo.

The consistent Newtonian is necessarily an atheist. See Sir W. Drummond’s Academical Questions, chap. iii. — Sir W. seems to consider the atheism to which it leads as a sufficient presumption of the falsehood of the system of gravitation; but surely it is more consistent with the good faith of philosophy to admit a deduction from facts than an hypothesis incapable of proof, although it might militate, with the obstinate preconceptions of the mob. Had this author, instead of inveighing against the guilt and absurdity of atheism, demonstrated its falsehood, his conduct would have, been more suited to the modesty of the skeptic and the toleration of the philosopher.

Omnia enim per Dei potentiam facta aunt: imo quia naturae potentia nulla est nisi ipsa Dei potentia. Certum est nos eatenus Dei potentiam non intelligere, quatenus causas naturales ignoramus; adeoque stulte ad eandem Dei potentism recurritur, quando rei alicuius causam naturalem, sive est, ipsam Dei potentiam ignoramusd — Spinoza, Tract. Theologico-Pol. chap 1. P. 14.

On Life

Life and the world, or whatever we call that which we are and feel, is an astonishing thing. The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being. We are struck with admiration at some of its transient modifications, but it is itself the great miracle. What are changes of empires, the wreck of dynasties, with the opinions which support them; what is the birth and the extinction of religious and of political systems, to life? What are the revolutions of the globe which we inhabit, and the operations of the elements of which it is composed, compared with life? What is the universe of stars, and suns, of which this inhabited earth is one, and their motions, and their destiny, compared with life? Life, the great miracle, we admire not because it is so miraculous. It is well that we are thus shielded by the familiarity of what is at once so certain and so unfathomable, from an astonishment which would otherwise absorb and overawe the functions of that which is its object.

If any artist, I do not say had executed, but had merely conceived in his mind the system of the sun, and the stars, and planets, they not existing, and had painted to us in words, or upon canvas, the spectacle now afforded by the nightly cope of heaven, and illustrated it by the wisdom of astronomy, great would be our admiration. Or had he imagined the scenery of this earth, the mountains, the seas, and the rivers; the grass, and the flowers, and the variety of the forms and masses of the leaves of the woods, and the colors which attend the setting and the rising sun, and the hues of the atmosphere, turbid or serene, these things not before existing, truly we should have been astonished, and it would not have been a vain boast to have said of such a man, “Non merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta.” But how these things are looked on with little wonder, and to be conscious of them with intense delight is esteemed to be the distinguishing mark of a refined and extraordinary person. The multitude of men care not for them. It is thus with Life — that which includes all.

What is life? Thoughts and feelings arise, with or without, our will, and we employ words to express them. We are born, and our birth is unremembered, and our infancy remembered but in fragments; we live on, and in living we lose the apprehension of life. How vain is it to think that words can penetrate the mystery of our being! Rightly used they may make evident our ignorance to ourselves; and this is much. For what are we? Whence do we come? and whither do we go? Is birth the commencement, is death the conclusion of our being? What is birth and death?

The most refined abstractions of logic conduct to a view of life, which, though startling to the apprehension, is, in fact, that which the habitual sense of its repeated combinations has extinguished in us. It strips, as it were, the painted curtain from this scene of things. I confess that I am one of those who am unable to refuse my assent to the conclusion of those philosophers who assert that nothing exists but as it is perceived.

It is a decision against which all our persuasions struggle, and we must be long convicted before we can be convinced that the solid universe of external things is “such stuff as dreams are made of.” The shocking absurdities of the popular philosophy of mind and matter, its fatal consequences in morals, and their violent dogmatism concerning the source of all things, had early conducted me to materialism. This materialism is a seducing system to young and superficial minds. It allows its disciples to talk, and dispenses them from thinking. But I was discontented with such a view of things as it afforded; man is a being of high aspirations, “looking both before and after,” whose “thoughts wander through eternity,” disclaiming alliance with transience and decay: incapable of imagining to himself annihilation; existing but in the future and the past; being, not what he is, but what he has been and all be. Whatever may be his true and final destination, there is a spirit within him at enmity with nothingness and dissolution. This is the character of all life and being. Each is at once the center and the circumference; the point to which all things are referred, and the line in which all things are contained. Such contemplations as these, materialism and the popular philosophy of mind and matter alike they are only consistent with the intellectual system.

It is absurd to enter into a long recapitulation of arguments sufficiently familiar to those inquiring minds, whom alone a writer on abstruse subjects can be conceived to address. Perhaps the most clear and vigorous statement of the intellectual system is to be found in Sir William Drummond’s Academical Questions. After such an exposition, it would be idle to translate into other words what could only lose its energy and fitness by the change. Examined point by point, and word by word, the most discriminating intellects have been able to discern no train of thoughts in the process of reasoning, which does not conduct inevitably to the conclusion which has been stated.

What follows from the admission? It establishes no new truth, it gives us no additional insight into our hidden nature, neither its action nor itself: Philosophy, impatient as it may be to build, has much work yet remaining as pioneer for the overgrowth of ages. it makes one step towards this object; it destroys error, and the roots of error. It leaves, what it is too often the duty of the reformer in political and ethical questions to leave, a vacancy. it reduces the mind to that freedom in which it would have acted, but for the misuse of words and signs, the instruments of its own creation. By signs, I would be understood in a wide sense, including what is properly meant by that term, and what I peculiarly mean. In this latter sense, almost all familiar objects are signs, standing, not for themselves, but for others, in their capacity of suggesting one thought which shall lead to a train of thoughts. Our whole life is thus an education of error.

Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves! Many of the Circumstances of social life were then important to us which are now no longer so. But that is not the point of comparison on which I mean to insist. We less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt, from ourselves. They seemed, as it were, to constitute one mass. There are some persons who, in this respect, are always children. Those who are subject to the state called reverie, feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being. They are conscious of no distinction. And these are states which precede, or accompany, or follow an unusually intense and vivid apprehension of life. As men grow up this power commonly decays, and they become mechanical and habitual agents. Thus feelings and then reasoning are the combined result of a multitude of entangled thoughts, and of a series of what are called impressions, planted by reiteration.

The view of life presented by the most refined deductions of the intellectual philosophy, to that of unity. Nothing exists but as it is perceived. The difference is merely nominal between those two classes of thought which are distinguished by the names of ideas and of external objects. Pursuing the same thread of reasoning, the existence of distinct individual minds, similar to that which is employed in now questioning its own nature, is likewise found to be a delusion. The words, I, you, they, are not signs of any actual difference subsisting between the assemblage of thoughts thus indicated, but are merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind.

Let it not be supposed that this doctrine conducts the monstrous presumption that I, the person who now write and think, am that one mind. I am but a portion of it. The words I, and you, and they are grammatical devices invented simply for arrangement, and totally devoid of the intense and exclusive sense usually attached to them. It is difficult to find terms adequate to express so subtle a conception as that to which the Intellectual Philosophy has conducted us. We are on that verge where words abandon us, and what wonder if we grow dizzy to look down the dark abyss of how little we know!

The relations of things remain unchanged, by whatever system. By the word things is to be understood any object of thought, that is, any thought upon which any other thought is employed, with an apprehension of distinction. The relations of these remain unchanged; and such is the material of our knowledge.

What is the cause of life? That is, how was it produced, or what agencies distinct from life have acted or act upon life? All recorded generations of mankind have wearily busied themselves in inventing answers to this question; and the result has been — Religion. Yet that the basis of all things cannot be, as the popular philosophy alleges, mind, is sufficiently evident. Mind, as far as we have any experience of its properties — and beyond that experience how vain is argument! — cannot create, it can only perceive. It is said also to be the cause. But cause is only a word expressing a certain state of the human mind with regard to the manner in which two thoughts are apprehended to be related to each other. If anyone desires to know how unsatisfactorily the popular philosophy employs itself upon this great question, they need only impartially reflect upon the manner in which thoughts develop themselves in their minds. It is infinitely improbable that the cause of mind, that is, of existence, is similar to mind.

On A Future State

It has been the persuasion of an immense majority of human beings in all ages and nations that we continue to live after death — that apparent termination of all the functions of sensitive and intellectual existence. Nor has mankind been contented with supposing that species of existence which some philosophers have asserted; namely, the resolution of the component parts of the mechanism of a living being into its elements, and the impossibility of the minutest particle of these sustaining the smallest diminution. They have clung to the idea that sensibility and thought, which they have distinguished from the objects of it, under the several names of spirit and matter, is, in its own nature, less susceptible of division and decay, and that, when the body is resolved into its elements, the principle which animated it will remain perpetual and unchanged. Some philosophers — and those to whom we are indebted for the most stupendous discoveries in physical science — suppose, on the other hand, that intelligence is the mere result of certain combinations among the particles of its objects; and those among them who believe that we live after death, recur to the interposition of a supernatural power, which shall overcome the tendency inherent in all material combinations, to dissipate and be absorbed into other forms.

Let us trace the reasoning which in one and the other have conducted to these two opinions, and endeavor to discover what we ought to think on a question of such momentous interest. Let us analyze the ideas and feelings which constitute the contending beliefs, and watchfully establish a discrimination between words and thoughts. Let us bring the question to the test of experience and fact; and ask ourselves, considering our nature in its entire extent, what light we derive from a sustained and comprehensive view of its component parts, which may enable us to assert, with certainty,, that we do or do not live after death.

The examination of this subject requires that it should be stripped of all those accessory topics which adhere to it in the common opinion of men. The existence of a God, and a future state of rewards and punishments are totally foreign to the subject. If it be proved that the world is ruled by a Divine Power, no inference necessarily can be drawn from that circumstance in favor of a future state. It has been asserted, indeed, that as goodness and justice are to be numbered among the attributes of the Deity, he will undoubtedly compensate the virtuous who suffer during life, and that he will make every sensitive being, who does not deserve punishment, happy forever. But this view of the subject, which it would be tedious as well as superfluous to develop and expose, satisfies no person, and cuts the knot which we now seek to untie. Moreover, should it be proved, on the other hand, that the mysterious principle which regulates the proceedings of the universe, to neither intelligent nor sensitive, yet it is not an inconsistency to suppose at the same time, that the animating power survives the body which it has animated, by laws as independent of any supernatural agent as those through which it first became united with it. Nor, if a future state be clearly proved, does it follow that it will be a state of punishment or reward.

By the word death, we express that condition in which natures resembling ourselves apparently cease to be that which they are. We no longer hear them speak, nor see them move. If they have sensations and apprehensions, we no longer participate in them. We know no more than that those external organs, and all that fine texture of material frame, without which we have no experience that life or thought can subsist, are dissolved and scattered abroad. The body is placed under the earth, and after a certain period there remains no vestige even of its form. This is that contemplation of inexhaustible melancholy, whose shadow eclipses the brightness of the world. The common observer is struck with dejection of the spectacle. He contends in vain against the persuasion of the grave, that the dead indeed cease to be. The corpse at his feet is prophetic of his own destiny. Those who have preceded him, and whose voice was delightful to his ear; whose touch met his like sweet and subtle fire: whose aspect spread a visionary light upon his path — these he cannot meet again. The organs of sense are destroyed, and the intellectual operations dependent on them have perished with their sources. How can a corpse see or feel? its eyes are eaten out, and its heart is black and without motion. What intercourse can two heaps of putrid Clay and crumbling bones hold together? When you can discover where the fresh colors of the faded flower abide, or the music of the broken lyre seek life among the dead. Such are the anxious and fearful contemplations of the common observer, though the popular religion often prevents him from confessing them even to himself.

The natural philosopher, in addition to the sensations common to all men inspired by the event of death, believes that he sees with more certainty that it is attended with the annihilation of sentiment and thought. He observes the mental powers increase and fade with those of the body, and even accommodate themselves to the most transitory changes of our physical nature. Sleep suspends many of the faculties of the vital and intellectual principle; drunkenness and disease will either temporarily or permanently derange them. Madness or idiocy may utterly extinguish the most excellent and delicate of those powers. In old age the mind gradually withers; and as it grew and was strengthened with the body, so does it together with the body sink into decrepitude. Assuredly these are convincing evidences that so soon as the organs of the body are subjected to the laws of inanimate matter, sensation, and perception, and apprehension, are at an end. It is probable that what we call thought is not an actual being, but no more than the relation between certain parts of that infinitely varied mass, of which the rest of the universe is composed, and which ceases to exist so soon as those parts change their position with regard to each other. Thus color, and sound, and taste, and odor exist only relatively. But let thought be considered only as some peculiar substance, which permeates, and is the cause of, the animation of living beings. Why should that substance be assumed to be something essentially distinct from all others, and exempt from subjection to those laws from which no other substance is exempt? It differs, indeed, from all other substances, as electricity, and light, and magnetism, and the constituent parts of air and earth, severally differ from all others. Each of these is subject to change and decay, and to conversion into other forms. Yet the difference between light and earth is scarcely greater than that which exists between life, or thought, and fire. The difference between the two former was never alleged as an argument for eternal permanence of either, in that form under which they first might offer themselves to our notice. Why should the difference between the two latter substances be an argument for the prolongation of the existence of one and not the other, when the existence of both has arrived at their apparent termination? To say that fire exists without manifesting any of the properties of fire, such as light, heat, etc., or that the Principle of life exists without consciousness, or memory, or desire, or motive, is to resign, by an awkward distortion of language, the affirmative of the dispute. To say that the principle of life may exist in distribution among various forms, is to assert what cannot be proved to be either true or false, but which, were it true, annihilates all hope of existence after death, in any sense in which that event can belong to the hopes and fears of men. Suppose, however, that the intellectual and vital principle differs in the most marked and essential manner from all other known substances; that they have all some resemblance between themselves which it in no degree participates. In what manner can this concession be made an argument for its imperishabillity? All that we see or know perishes and is changed. Life and thought differ indeed from everything else. But that it survives that period, beyond which we have no experience of its existence, such distinction and dissimilarity affords no shadow of proof, and nothing but our own desires could have led us to conjecture or imagine.

Have we existed before birth? It is difficult to conceive the possibility of this. There is, in the generative principle of each animal and plant, a power which converts the substances homogeneous with itself. That is, the relations between certain elementary particles of matter undergo a change, and submit to new combinations. For when we use words: principle, power, cause, etc., we mean to express no real being, but only to class under those terms a certain series of coexisting phenomena; but let it be supposed that this principle is a certain substance which escapes the observation of the chemist and anatomist. It certainly may be; thought it is sufficiently unphilosophical to allege the possibility of an opinion as a proof of its truth. Does it see, hear, feel, before its combination with those organs on which sensation depends? Does it reason, imagine, apprehend, without those ideas which sensation alone can communicate? If we have not existed before birth; If, at the period when the parts of our nature on which thought and life depend, seem to be woven together; If there are no reasons to suppose that we have existed before that period at which our existence apparently commences, then there are no grounds for supposing that we shall continue to exist after our existence has apparently ceased. So far as thought and life is concerned, the same will take place with regard to us, individually considered, after death, as had taken place before our birth.

It is said that it is possible that we should continue to exist in some mode totally inconceivable to us at present. This is a most unreasonable presumption. It casts on the adherents of annihilation the burden of proving the negative of a question, the affirmative of which is not supported by a single argument, and which, by its very nature, lies beyond the experience of the human understanding. It is sufficiently easy. indeed, to form any proposition, concerning which we are ignorant, just not so absurd as not to be contradictory in itself, and defy refutation. The possibility of whatever enters into the wildest imagination to conceive is thus triumphantly vindicated. But it is enough that such assertions should be either contradictory to the known laws of nature, or exceed the limits of our experience, that their fallacy or irrelevancy to our consideration should be demonstrated. They persuade, indeed, only those who desire to be persuaded.

This desire to be forever as we are; the reluctance to a violent and unexperienced change, which is common to all the animated and inanimate combinations of the universe, is, indeed, the secret persuasion which has given birth to the opinions of a future state.pelled rrom

The Dumbing of Humanism

The New Yorker cartoon showed a man defiantly situated behind a newspaper refusing to give up his bus seat to an irate “lady shopper.” The caption was “Chivalry isn’t dead Madam. I am.”

I think it’s vintage 1950. It was included in my grandmother’s fairly slim 1950’s collection of cartoons from the publication that writers still refer to as The Magazine.

I was a subscriber when I was an impecunious undergraduate. My grandmother saw to it–and that I got a box of cherry cordials on my birthday. Now that I am an impecunious university teacher, I still subscribe. Nothing–not even Monty Python’s “Isn’t it Awfully Nice to Have a Penis”–ever made me laugh louder than New Yorker cartoons.

But this lol cartoon came to mind a day or so ago because I’ve been wondering lately whether or not to give up on humanism. It may be dead, but like the flogged dead horse, it won’t lie down.

I say this as someone who has an ardent respect for gay, women’s, minority, and various other individual rights. I support a woman’s right to choose as a matter of common sense and human decency. It is not an arguable topic. I support the right of gays and any other loving people on the planet to love each other with the blessings they choose and in the way they want. It is not an arguable topic. Stem cell research, wherever they usefully come from? For it. War? Against it. Mostly. Religious and any other kind of dogmatism and extremism. Get real. –Sorry, a man of my era.

I am not exactly a libertarian and most libertarians I meet actually annoy me and seem oddly incoherent. But I agree with what used to be a cardinal libertarian tenet: We are free to choose anything that does no harm to others except to choose not to be educated. Something libertarians no longer spotlight–at least as far as I can tell. To choose not to be educated puts us in the running for dogmatism, the opposite of liberty.

“The principle itself of dogmatic religion, dogmatic morality, dogmatic philosophy, is what requires to be rooted out; not any particular manifestation of that principle. The very corner-stone of an education intended to form great minds, must be the recognition of the principle, that the object is to call forth the greatest possible quantity of intellectual power, and to inspire the intensest love of truth: and this without a particle of regard to the results to which the exercise of that power may lead, even though it should conduct the pupil to opinions diametrically opposite to those of his teachers. We say this, not because we think opinions unimportant, but because of the immense importance which we attach to them; for in proportion to the degree of intellectual power and love of truth which we succeed in creating, is the certainty that (whatever may happen in any one particular instance) in the aggregate of instances true opinions will be the result; and intellectual power and practical love of truth are alike impossible where the reasoner is shown his conclusions, and informed beforehand that he is expected to arrive at them.” John Stuart Mill, Civilization (1836).

Mill’s language worries me. My worry is that humanism, which (if the word still has any force) has to be concerned about rights, individuality, privacy, non-interference, and pressing social and political matters, is being reduced to the issues those principles evince. That sounds a bit fustian. It isn’t meant to.

I suppose it’s fair to say that the reason humanism, as most people know the word, has taken this turn is that it is easier to talk about issues than principles, easier to discuss hot topics than ideals. Movements and advocacy groups are “joined.” They are not the last statement in a syllogism.

But there be monsters. Religious communities are also joined, and just for the same reason. No one ever became a Presbyterian because he read his Calvin. Not recently, anyway. The danger of becoming dogmatic about anything you haven’t arrived at through a steady course of reasoning is immense. That is exactly Mill’s point.

It is proportionally easier, therefore, to confuse issues and ideals–and I think that is what is happening to humanism–with humanism. It now falls victim to the kind of reductivism to which its spacious principles have entitled it, like Adam to the succulence of forbidden fruit.

Can we blame anyone or anything for this outcome? I think so.

Chivalry died and no one noticed. It was replaced by sheer dumbness and the unprincipled assurance of male political and social dominance. That was (simplified) certainly the case during my childhood, and even remained the case during the now well-documented male-dominated protest movements of the early sixties when I came of age. Then women came of age and didn’t want to be called “babe” or “my chick” anymore, around the same time Asians at Berkeley were called Buddha heads. And then everything changed.

I’ve just read Stephanie Coontz’s new biography of

Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique. When I knew her, near the end of her life, she resisted saying outright that feminism and humanism were compatible. They were certainly not the same thing. One was not a subset of the other. They could be arrived at by different roads. Cher’s don’t-mess-with-me-looks at Sonny did more than Gloria Steinham to change things for women. And she began as a chick. Humanism had nothing to do with it.

I think humanism leads to positions that embrace freedom, justice, equality and compassion. But I see no way of maintaining those positions, practically or even argumentatively, without careful assessment of what brings them into existence.

The best kind of humanist vision creates liberating (not necessarily liberal) positions; but I do not think these positions lead inevitably to a humanist vision. There are ample “proofs” of this, but reflect on the fact that Christian principles, as represented in the Black Church of the 1950’s and 1960’s and ideas of self-worth that were rooted in the Gospel, issued in the Civil Rights movement. Liberal Christian ministers like William Sloane Coffin climbed on board quickly. They were also there at the head of the civil disobedience phase of the anti-war movement. I know because I was there too. A small, core peace movement had long existed in the United States, largely based in Quaker and Unitarian beliefs, but failed to gain popular currency until the Cold War era. The escalating nuclear arms race of the late 1950s led Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, along with Clarence Pickett of the American Society of Friends (Quakers), to found the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) in 1957. The list goes on, but except for the atheist orientation of certain radical groups, the list of effective activism–activism that made a difference–was at least implicitly religious.

Humanism, meantime, of a quieter, calmer and even religious disposition was being dumbed in the growth of secular humanism [Humanist Manifesto II, 1973]

It was the purest reduction of humanist principles to easy targets that America had ever seen, an accelerated Berlitz-scheme to make America more like Europe. Fundamentalists, political yahoos, believers in the paranormal, weird science, and assorted other “issues” that smart people might have settled with a little classroom time and careful thought, were put forward as a program (a joinable cause) in an age when self-help was just coming of age. It bought a variety of causes, more or less, wholesale, as its agenda, failing to see that religion was changing and offering its screed against religion in the form of a new scientific morality as a substitute for “faith”:

…Traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence, obedience rather than affirmation, fear rather than courage. More recently they have generated concerned social action, with many signs of relevance appearing in the wake of the “God Is Dead” theologies. But we can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.

I am an unbeliever who doesn’t like the word atheist very much–too fraught with unarguable curves. Secular humanism embraced atheism as its non-negotiable starting point. There were other kinds of “humanism,” the founders of secular humanism acknowledged, but they were primarily of antiquarian value. Hardly worth notice in a democratic (10 across) and secular (7 down) society.

There was nothing especially wicked in any of this. Secular humanism was a vision for the early-late twentieth century. Its attention to the secular origins of American democracy was important, though not unique and not philosophically grounded in a deep sense of history. One of its early saints, Corliss Lamont, and many of its attaches, were simply repentant and fairly ignorant Marxists. Humanism was a badge of respectability when other loves dare not be spoken.

It was not a vision or a way forward. The threat it posed to itself was the threat of the phoenix. Ultimately it would self-destruct before the twin spawn of its birth: issues of individual rights, which it shared with a dozen other advocacy groups, and the atheist mind-set that it taught was required for the implementation of any meaningful approach to the issues. It did not imagine that one day its hedginess would be its undoing and that the soft bottom of humanism would not be strong enough to support it.

As the creation of an era, secular humanism was between Scylla and Charybdis. It preached nonsense under the banner of “reason” and “science” since no self-respecting individualist who is also a non-believer would dare to challenge the icons of the Post-Darwinian world.

Mainly, traditional humanists shut up. First because they were (that word again) chivalrous where secular humanism was loud and bluff, though not as loud as organized atheism. Partly because they had grown diffident about their usefulness in an issue-dominated society that was also being driven in new directions by a hundred social and intellectual currents. They–the liberal and vaguely religious humanists–were quaint, classical, church-friendly, even a bit priggishly old fashioned in their moral and intellectual stances.

Secular humanism seemed, at the time, aggressive, issue-sensitive, purposeful. The extent to which it had become servant rather than master of its issues was never, really, cataloged.

The propounders were scarcely aware of the prior history of denominationalism. They aspired to a European version of society without really ever “getting” Europe, as if they married into it rather than being born to the manor. They needed to have read a little more Niebhur, maybe even a little Augustine, a little less C.S. Peirce.

H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism

If they had, they would have been aware that the qualification of anything is the beginning of its fracture, its breaking into bits, wings, factions–or to use the ecclesiological jargon, denominations. Once humanism began calling itself names, like so many Baptists, the end was near. It is hard to get back to basics–principles and ideals, origins–once issues, movements, and mind-sets have replaced them in energy, flow and focus. That is what happened. And it is entirely describable, in a historicist kind of way.

Humanism doesn’t need to be defined anymore. It is as it does. Like language, it’s the talk we talk, not the speech described in nineteenth century grammars. I have no illusions that a philosophy opposed to the soul is prepared for soul-searching. I am not even sure it’s desirable. Smart people will always draw inspiration from historical models and form unspoken principles from example and “great” ideas. They don’t really need a name, a map, a manifesto, or a banner in front of it.

Yet there may be hope. I think that there is a new generation of idealists (and I could name names, and maybe I will at some point) who care as ardently as I do about first principles, virtue, and goodness as the starting point for any meaningful experience of humanism.

They certainly exist in Boston (and perhaps elsewhere?) and they recognize that individual freedom begins from the principles–the ideas–not the issues. They are not reductivists. They are not antiquarians. They are not dumb. And they are far from dead.