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A Contrary And Wonderful Thing
I highly recommend the book I'm reading, Christopher Hitchens' Letters To A Young Contrarian. Like me, he is not a believer in god. He says he is "not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful." (Anyone who thinks he's wrong should just look to the guy in The White House, trying to deny gays and lesbians rights in the name of religion.) Here's an exerpt from Hitchens' book, from the chapter on his views on religion:

I have met many brave men and women, morally superior to myself, whose courage in adversity derives from their faith. But whenever they have chosen to speak or write about it, I have found myself appalled by the instant decline of their intellectual and moral standards. They want god on their side and believe they are doing his work -- what is this, even at its very best, but an extreme form of solipsism? They proceed from conclusion to evidence; our greatest resource is the mind and the mind is not well-trained by being taught to assume what has to be proved.

This arrogance and illogic is inseparable even from the meekends and most altruistic religious affirmations. A true believer must believe that he or she is here for a purpose and is an object of real interest to a Supreme Being; he or she must also claim to have at least an inkling of what that Supreme Being desires. I have been called arrogant myself in my time, and hope to earn the title again, but to claim that I am privy to the secrets of the universe and its creator -- that's beyond my conceit. I therefore have no choice but to find something suspect even in the humblest believer, let alone in the great law-givers and edict-makers of whose "flock" (and what a revealing word that is) they form a part.

Even the most humane and compoassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in this quiet and irrational authoritarianism: they proclaim us, in Fulke Grenville's unforgettable line, "Created sick -- Commanded to be well." And there are totalitarian insinuations to back this up if its appeal should fail. Christians, for example, declare me redeemed by a human sacrifice that occurred thousands of years before I was born. I didn't ask for it, and would willingly have foregone it, but there it is: I'm claimed and saved whether I wish it or not. And if I refuse the unsolicited gift? Well, there are stsill some vague mutterings about an eternity of torment for my ingratitude. This is somewhat worse than a Big Brother state, because there could be no hope of its eventually passing away.

In any case, I find something repulsive in the idea of vicarious redemption. I would not throw my numberless sins onto a scapegoat and expect them to pass from me; we rightly sneer at the barbaric societies that practice this unpleasantness in its literal form. There's no moral value in the vicarious gesture anyway. As Thomas Paine pointed out, you may if you wish take on another man's debt, or even offer to take his place in prison. That would be self-sacrificing. But you may not assume his actual crimes as if they were your own; for one thing you did not commit them and might have died rather than do so; for another this impossible action would rob him of individual responsibility. So the whole apparatus of absolution and forgiveness strikes me as positively immoral, while the concept of revealed truth degrades the whole concept of free intelligence by purportedly relieving us of the hard task of working out ethical principles for ourselves.

Posted by aalkon at January 25, 2004 9:48 AM


See this, at least the opening passage, for a somewhat warmer take:

I loathe his wording "he hard task of working out ethical principles for ourselves," because fools and shitheels will presume he means independent study.

Posted by: Mark at January 25, 2004 12:30 PM

I'm reminded of Einstein's words in "The World as I See It":

"I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls."

All the Best,

Posted by: GodlessRose at January 26, 2004 12:12 AM

Was this the same Einstein who said "God doesn't play dice"?

Not being an expert on Einstein, I certainly concede that he may at some point have changed his mind.

Posted by: LYT at January 26, 2004 4:00 PM

I've yet to meet a religious person who I believed practiced a higher moral standard and was kinder to people.

Posted by: Tiffany at January 26, 2004 4:30 PM

"Was this the same Einstein who said 'God doesn't play dice'?" - LYT

The myth that Albert Einstein believed in God is quite common, in part because many theists wish it were so. But he actually became an atheist at the age of 12, and remained so for the rest of his life.

Part of the confusion comes from his habit of using the word "God" in a poetic sense, as in your quote. He considered the universe as revealed by science to be an object of profound wonder and reverence, and therefore called it God. But he made it clear that his "God" had no personal or supernatural attributes, and was therefore not the God of theism.

He also wrote of "religion" and "spirituality", but made it clear that for him, these things did not involve belief in life after death or any other sort of supernatural notions. And in a couple of his letters, he referred to himself as an "atheist" and an "agnostic".*

Here is a good article on Einstein's God:

And of course, Einstein's books aren't hard to track down if you want to know more.

All the Best,

* This brings me to another common myth - that atheism means "the belief there is no God", and that agnosticism is therefore something different from atheism. This is nonsense. Since the 18th century, atheists have understood atheism to mean "the absence of belief in a (personal and supernatural) God or gods".

This is an important distinction. Another way of stating it is that everyone who is not sure that a (personal, supernatural) God or gods exist is an atheist. Atheism is therefore a broad category of viewpoints - every view except theism or polytheism, basically - and it includes agnosticism. And the Brights movement, for that matter.

This broad conception of atheism is unfamiliar to many people, but it is universally accepted by literate atheists. Has been for hundreds of years, in fact. This is one of my pet peeves, so I just had to bring it up. :)

Posted by: GodlessRose at January 27, 2004 1:27 AM

Good point about the definition of atheism. But I've recently been wondering, by the same token, if agnostic simply means one who is not a Gnostic Christian.

Posted by: LYT at January 27, 2004 9:37 AM

Amy Alkon writes (and quotes Hitchens):

>>but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful." (Anyone who thinks he's wrong should just look to the guy in The White House, trying to deny gays and lesbians rights in the name of religion.)<<

It repays to read the following excerpts from Mr. Nietzsche (these happen to be taken from "Twilight of the Idols"). I offer three outstanding quotes, ones which I already had available, and so I paste them below. They evince how incredibly prescient, chillingly prescient, Nietzsche was on such matters (and many others).

I certainly don't agree with Nietzsche's "solution(s)." But his diagnosis of cultural problem and "culture wars" plaguing late modernity are indispensable. They're illuminating and basically irrefutable. (That is, once you really spend time with him, know what he's really getting, who he's really reacting to, etc.).

CAPS not in the original; added for sake of emphasis.

To wit:

(A). The most general formula on which every religion and morality is founded is: "Do this and that, refrain from this and that -- then you will be happy! Otherwise . . . " Every morality, every religion, is this imperative; I call it the great original sin of reason, the immortal unreason. In my mouth, this formula is changed into its opposite -- first example of my "revaluation of all values": A well-turned-out human being, a "happy one," must perform certain actions and shrinks instinctively from other actions; he carries the order, which he represents physiologically, into his relations with other human beings and things. In a formula: His virtue is the *effect* of his happiness. A long life, many descendants -- this is not the wages of virtue; rather virtue itself is that slowing down of the metabolism which leads, among other things, also to a long life, many descendants -- in short, to Cornarism [What the hell "Cornarism" is, I don't kow].

The church and morality say: "A generation, a people are destroyed by license and luxury." My recovered reason says: When a people approaches destruction, when it degenerates physiologically, then license and luxury follow from this (namely, the craving for ever stronger and more frequent stimulation, as every exhausted nature knows it). This young man turns pale early and wilts; his friends say: That is due to this or that disease. I say: That he became diseased, that he did not resist the disease, was already the effect of an impoverished life or hereditary exhaustion. The newspaper reader [Nietzsche's metaphor for the "cultivated", the "educated", i.e. the "last men", whom Nietzsche otherwise despises] says: This party destroys itself by making such a mistake. [*That's* modern "education"]. My higher politics says: a party which makes such mistakes has reached its end; it has lost its sureness of instinct. Every mistake in every sense is the effect of the degeneration of instinct, of the disintegration of the will: one could almost define what is bad in this way."

(B). G[eorge] Eliot. They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females ala Eliot. In England [or anywhere else today in the cultivated West] one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.

We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: This point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a *whole* view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: Nothing *necessary* remains in one's hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, *cannot* know, what is good for him, what [is] evil: He [thus] believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth -- it stands and falls with faith in God.

When the English actually believe that they know "intuitively" what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the *effects* of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: Such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.

And, for the great finale, Nietzsche on MARRIAGE:

(C). Critique of Modernity. Our institutions are no good any more: On that there is universal agreement. However, it is not their fault but ours. Once we have lost all the instincts out of which institutions grow [cf. quote (A)], we lose institutions altogether because we are no longer good for them. [Yes, the dissolution of marriage will come, just as in Scandinavia. Check out the current Weekly Standard, available online; long, trechant essay by Stanely Kurtz on the coming dissolution of marriage ala Sweden!]. Democracy has ever been the form of decline in organizing power: in "Human, All-Too-Human" (I, 472) I already characterized modern democracy, together with its hybrids such as the "German Reich" [which was a form of democracy], as the form of decline of the state. In order that there may be institutions, there must be a kind of will, instinct, or imperative, which is anti-liberal to the point of malice: The will to tradition, to authority, to responsibility for centuries to come, to the solidarity of chains of generations [people in democracy think back to their grandparent's time and think time stops there], *forward* and *backward* ad infinitum.

The whole of the West no longer possesses the instincts out of which institutions grow, out of which the future grows: Perhaps nothing antagonizes its "modern spirit" so much. One lives for the day, one lives very fast, one lives very irresponsibly: Precisely this is called "freedom" [the reading of the morning prayer has been replaced by the reading of the morning newspaper]. That which makes an institution an institution is despised, hated, repudiated: One fears the danger of a new slavery the moment the word "authority" is even spoken out loud. That is how far decadence has advanced in the value-instincts of our politicians, of our political parties [or of the "cultivated"]: Instinctively they prefer what disintegrates, what hastens the end.

Witness modern marriage. All RATIONALITY has clearly vanished from modern marriage; yet that is no objection to marriage, but to modernity. The rationality of marriage -- that lay in the husband's sole juridical responsibility, which gave marriage a center of gravity, while today it limps on both legs. The rationality of marriage [rationality: "what God has brought together, let no man put asunder"] -- that lay in its indissolubility in principle, which lent it an accent that could be heard above the accident of feeling, passion, and what is merely momentary. It also lay in the family's responsibility for the choice of a spouse. With the growing indulgence of love matches [!!], the very foundation of marriage has been eliminated, that which alone makes an institution of it. Never, absolutely never, can an institution be founded on an idiosyncracy; one cannot, as I've said, found marriage on "love" -- it can be founded on the sex drive, on the property drive (wife and child as property), on the drive to dominate, which continually organizes for itself the smallest structure of dominion, the family, and which needs children and heirs to hold fast -- physiologically too -- to an attained measure of power, influence, and wealth, in order to prepare for long-range tasks, for a solidarity of instinct between the centuries. Marriage as an institution involves the affirmation of the largest and most enduring form of organization: When society cannot affirm itself as a whole, down to the most distant generations, then marriage has altogether no MEANING. Modern marriage has lost its meaning -- consequently one ABOLISHES IT.

Posted by: Lars at January 27, 2004 5:35 PM

"the reading of the morning prayer has been replaced by the reading of the morning newspaper."

And some of us just sleep as late as we possibly can.

Posted by: Lena at January 28, 2004 12:26 PM

"My teaching is mild against those without faith in it; it has no hell or threats. Those without faith are left with an empty, flighty life in their own consciousness."


Posted by: Lars at January 30, 2004 3:53 PM


You cannot be suggesting that Nietzsche was supportive of religious faith. Have you read "On the Geneology of Morals"? (Or are aphoristic quotes more your cup of chai?) It's a 300-page lightnening storm of anger against religion.


Posted by: Lena at January 31, 2004 12:29 PM

Lena -- yes, I've read Geneology of Morals. I've read everything by Nietzsche, except Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche saw the decline and collapse of religion as a disaster of unmitigated proportions -- but that to continue holding on to religion (read: Christianity, esp. protestantism) would be more harmful to humanity than otherwise. It has to be let go of. Demolished. A new horizon which can envelop man must be established by force of will to power. But only a new aristocracy of atheist supermen could be capable of this* [see below]. _TSZ_ is Nietzsche's _most_ profound work, by a long shot. The fact that the superman is mentioned only twice by Nietzsche after the printing of _TSZ_ means nothing -- or, in otherwords, it does not mean Nietzsche didn't put all his hope in the extermination of vast swaths of humanity in order to create a race of supermen. It's a pitty so many unsuspecting minds have lapped up "Nietzsche lite" tossed to them by drwarf intellectuals trying to render Nietzsche into some bow-tie wearing "liberal" (Nehemas, Kaufmann, Leiter -- the list is long). But they are, alas, jack-ass worshippers, as Nietzsche would call them (see "The Ass Festival" and the chapter preceding, from Book IV of _TSZ_), pointy-headed little intellectuals, "newspaper readers," "arts & letters" types, whom Nietzsche utterly despised (i.e. "last men"). Nietzsche, as he himself said, would have them driven out of his city, just as Plato drove the poets out of his "city in speech."

* It is imperative to grasp what Nietzsche, or his atheist superman, despise in the human-all-too human need for religious rootedness, a rootedness definitive for both politics and philosophy. Nietzsches PHYSICAL IMAGE OF WHAT ATHEISM MEANS INTELLECTUALLY IS DRINKING AN OCEAN. ATHEISM IS AS HUMANLY IMPOSSIBLE AS DRINKING THE SEA AND YET IT IS TRUE, THE ONLY ETERNAL TRUTH (cf. _Joyful Science_, 125). No man, according to Nietzsche, only a superman could drink that sea without self-destruction. As the would be atheist, Stavrogin, laments prior to his suicide, one can cross a river on a log (political-theological teleology) but not on a chip (atheism).
Atheism is anathema to men as men, to moral-political beings. Atheist eradication of mans essential rootedness in his factions theology makes human life impossible. In the ancient (polytheist) world, atheism hardly existed. Each family, tribe, and city had its own gods. Each was the chosen people of its gods or god. As in Sophocles Antigone conflicts could occur, for example, between family and civic piety. Put differently: divine (or natural) rights, justifications, were available only for groups. There was no divine (or natural) justification for simply being an individual.

Posted by: Lars at February 2, 2004 1:30 AM

Hi! After a discussion on another thread, I realized I overstated things in my initial comment on the definition of atheism. ("This broad conception of atheism is unfamiliar to many people, but it is universally accepted by literate atheists. Has been for hundreds of years, in fact.") Here is a how I should have worded it:

This broad conception of atheism is unfamiliar to many people, but it is generally accepted by literate atheists. And it appears to have been implied, if not explicitly stated, in prominent atheist writings as early as the late 18th century.

I just thought I should post that addendum, for anyone who checks this thread.

All the Best,

Posted by: GodlessRose at February 7, 2004 2:06 PM