Sunday, October 18, 2009


Time to put things in context. What hardly anybody ever does.

Let's begin with a thought experiment. Imagine you are a citizen of Washington (or London, or Paris) in the year 1800. There are no trains, cars, planes--not even bicycles. There are no steamships or submarines. There are no cell-phones--no phones, period. There is no gas, no electricity, no running water. There are no dishwashers, washers-and-dryers, refrigerators, no computers, radios, TVs, movies. No high-rises, no freeways, hardly any roads worthy of the name.

Now imagine yourself suddenly transported back a couple of thousand years, to the Roman republic. How strange would you feel? Answer, not very, certainly no more than if you'd been moved, in your own time, to somewhere else on earth--Turkey, say, or China. Maybe even less so, for if you were well-educated you'd already speak the language, or some of it; the pronunciation would throw you at first, but you'd soon figure it out. You'd miss a few things: printing presses, firearms, clocks. But really not that much. Clothes would be different, but you'd expect that, and be more familiar, through historical paintings, with Roman wear than with the clothes of contemporary China or Turkey. Most everyday things would be the same: means of transport, weapons (firearms excepted), basic tools, household equipment, building materials. The way of life would not have been startlingly different; both cultures employed slavery, both had forms of republican government. Indeed, if our time traveler had been a politician, he would have felt perfectly at home in the Roman senate; for the Washingtonian at least, the republican sentiments would have mirrored those heard at home, often even in the same words; early C19 pols loved to quote Latin dicta, and indeed often saw themselves as spiritual heirs of what Rome was before it became corrupted.

Now suppose you were a Roman of the second century BC making the reverse journey. You might encounter slightly more strangeness, in that the languages would be new and unknown to you, and firearms would be as scary as they were to native Americans or Pacific islanders on first encounter. On the negative side you'd notice marked deterioration in road-building and plumbing. But again, the shocks would be no greater than you'd expect to receive from a barbarous culture of your own time. You'd adjust. Pretty soon you'd blend in.

Now imagine our C19 traveler suddenly projected into our own time. Brought forward, not two thousand years, but a mere tenth part of that. Given our biblical span of threescore years and ten, that's just three lifetimes. Given the pace of change that had always obtained, you'd expect only the most trivial of changes in so brief a spell.

Instead, you'd find a world totally unrecognizable, filled with artifacts and ideas and behaviors not just new, but utterly incomprehensible to you. Would you survive? If you did, would you keep your sanity? I very much doubt it. You and your Roman alter ego would be equally unable to cope with our world, where almost every step would leave you facing some horrendous new mystery.

The world changed more in those three lifetimes than during any other period in the history or prehistory of humankind.

Obviously, the changes themselves were due to changes in energy supply. Until the early C19, humans had depended on only four sources of energy: wind, water, animals and humans themselves. Wind could be used only for sailing ships and grinding grain, water only for grinding grain. Everything else--construction, transport, agriculture--depended on human or animal power.

Then, in quick succession, came coal and oil, unleashing a cascade of new technologies, mutating into electrical power (which, once harnessed, could exploit wind and water too). But of course you can't just change technology and not expect everything else to change with it.

There was a massive increase in material wealth. Along with this came equally massive shifts in the distribution of wealth, power and prestige, as well as in sheer numbers. At the time of the Roman republic, world population is estimated at 200 million. By 1800, it had more than tripled. But that was nothing. In the three lifetimes between then and now, it grew sevenfold, from 900 million to nearly 7.000 million. In 1800, 3% of the world's population lived in cities. Today, half the world's population lives in cities.

Don't forget, all of this in just three lifetimes. Well, maybe two lifetimes. Hiram Cronk, born in 1800, old enough to have fought in the War of 1812, died in 1905--a contemporary of Napoleon and Washington who lived long enough to have his funeral filmed. Emilio Navarro, a Puerto Rican baseball player, born in 1905 and thus a contemporary of the last Czar and Teddy Roosevelt, is still alive.

Now the first reaction of most people to all of these changes is, "Wow! PROGRESS!" They think of all the technological goodies that have indeed, in large part, "trickled down" to the working masses. They look at life expectancy: in 1800, that was anything from 25 to 45, depending on who you listen to, but now it's up in the seventies.

Well, that last statistic is a bit misleading. If you made it out of early childhood, and if you were reasonably well-to-do, your life expectancy was just as good in 1800 as it is today. Wikipedia lists the death dates of 60 people born in 1800. More than half--36--lived into their seventies. Of these, another half--18--lived into their eighties. Six of these made it to their nineties, and one (Hiram Cronk, who else?) made his century. What's more, only two of these 60 were women! Since women, on average, live several years longer than men, you can see that claims for the wonders of modern health care are, well, somewhat exaggerated.

And now for the down side.

For a relative few, there was no down side. If you were rich, or clever, or lucky, there was freedom like never before. And since the writing classes clung to or were enmeshed in the coat-tails of the soaring elite, good reports were (if you exclude a few radical soreheads, whiners and losers) just about all you read. I'm sure all four of our professional atheists go with this particular flow. But now they see all their gains threatened by fundamentalists within and without, and they react to that, it explains part of their anger. Because, don't you see, it's so irrational! I mean, to actually march backwards, back into superstitious darkness, just when the world is finally emerging into the clear light of reason!

Well...For the majority of people, any upside was overridden by the down. Whether or not they were better off materially, they were relatively worse off. The gap between rich and poor widened, then shrank as the working class unionized and reaped the accidental bonanza of WWII, then widened again and kept widening, though Democratic and Republican administrations alike. And technology made the gap more unbearable. When the rich man was in his castle, the poor man at his gate had only the vaguest idea what he was missing. Now the poor schmuck living in mortal terror of losing his minimum-wage McJob gets his nose rubbed in it every night--in living color, Life Styles of the Rich and Famous. All the pleasures he's been taught to believe are all he wants or should want are spread out before him, forever out of reach. Like Dives looking up from the fires of hell at Lazarus rollicking in the bosom of the Almighty. Only unlike Dives he's never been rich and unlike Lazarus--if you believe Dawkins et al.--he's got no second life to redress the balance of the first.

Or has he? You see where this is heading. And all we've considered so far is the material side of things. We haven't even considered something that can't be weighed or measured, something that is accordingly discountable by science and reason--means that you can use only on what can be weighed and measured. That thing is, dignity.

Dignity depends, in large measure, on autonomy. Humans cannot have a sense of their own dignity unless they can--insofar as this is feasible--control their own movements. Prior to 1800, and in times and places where there was neither slavery nor serfdom, most people were autonomous agents. If they were not self-employed as farmers, tradesmen, storekeepers, they were apprentices who had every expectation that they would become self-employed. No matter that they might be shoeless, half-starved, that they might have to work all the hours God sends to make ends meet, there was no-one to tell them "Do this" or "Do that", to regulate their time of coming or going, to stand over them with a stop-watch, to reluctantly dole out, at week's end, what was deemed to be "their share" of the profit from their labors. Or to impose on them the (to rational folk penning atheist screeds in comfy studies) wholly unimaginable tedium of the assembly line.

The new work-routines that had been conjured out of thin air by the new technologies reduced their bodies to robots but, cruelly perhaps, did nothing to their lively, questioning, protesting human minds. That's why communism. The founders of the movement dreamed, and the wage-slaves hoped, that communism would restore their lost autonomy. Of course it didn't. It couldn't have, even with goodwill (and you couldn't even expect that, any revolution will ultimately breed monsters). The evils of technology do not stem from selfish, greedy or evil minds, although such minds will naturally come along for the ride. Those evils stem from the nature of the beast. If you are mass-producing for ever-swelling masses, work has to be systematized, regulated, robotized. And the fact that the masses are swelling, that every year there are millions more mouths to feed and bodies to clothe, only compounds the problem. The more there is of anything, the less it is valued. The more people on earth, the less the assumed value of each individual. Not, of course, that anyone would cop to this. But would you expect them to? No, they all say, of course individual life is valuable. But why? Well, it just is.

They have to say thing like this because one of the main reasons why individual life was valued has largely disappeared and is under threat wherever it still exists.

Individual life was valued because every individual, good, bad or ugly, was assumed to have an immortal soul. The whole vast, creaky apparatus of the Church existed for the avowed purpose of saving souls, and the Church was an immense and palpable presence in people's lives. Not so much because it was more powerful than it is now, but because there was no vast machine, no Empire of Mammon, pulling the other way. So you had the paradoxical situation that human life was cheap, cheaper by far than it is today, yet at the same time the individual, the soul-bearer, with that drop of immortality in his or her chest, was more highly valued, mattered more. If you think this was a strange and irrational state of affairs, remember that you comfortably inhabit a paradox equally bizarre, in which a far higher value is placed on human life, but the human individual is reduced to a meaningless cipher.

Though I have a visceral loathing for aristocrats, drawn from generations of peasant ancestors, I have to admit that they served at least one useful purpose. With their contempt for material values and their sense of superiority over sordid money-grubbers, they represented a countervailing force to the Forces of Mammon. Allied with the Church, they oppressed the lower orders (bad), but their mere existence prevented the worshippers of Mammon from coming to power (good). But in just three lifetimes, all of that went by the board.

I remember the exact moment when I realized that Mammon, not Jehovah or Christ's God of Love, was the true God of this world. Next time I'll tell you about it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


There's been something of a hiatus here. I thought I was going to have lots of fun dealing with Dennett's commercial take on religion. Then I reread it and realized it was too easy a target. I can do it in a couple of paragraphs.

The chapter headings and section titles say it all: "Cui bono?", "The growth market in religion", "Towards a buyer's guide to religion", "What can your religion do for you?". To Dennett, religion is for what you get out of it, and the most effective religions are those that, while demanding more of their followers, offer them more (or at least claim to). This gives Dennett, like Dawkins, sneering rights at more rarified brands of religion, those whose God does not listen to human prayers and is inaccessible to human knowledge. Such a God (if not a pure invention by self-interested exploiters) is at best an impotent ghost undeserving of human worship, for "Who can be loyal to a God who cannot be asked for anything?" (p. 193).

Well, Dennett would be surprised. Any mystic worth his salt, and many less-radical believers whose main driving force is the need to worship something greater than themselves, who do not expect anything in return, and who have the good sense to realize that "greater than themselves" better not refer to any kind of human--these don't ask for anything back. Dennett has obviously never felt this need, and if forced to confront it would probably pour scorn on it, mistaking it for some servile act unworthy of a Bold Man Standing Alone in an Indifferent Universe, so I'm wasting my time if I go further with this. I would simply point out that if you're ignorant of this side of human experience, and proud of that ignorance, it's no different from saying you're proud of being deaf, or blind, or impervious to human suffering.

Instead I'm going to catch Dennett out in a self-contradiction. That's much more fun. With anyone as logically akamai as Dennett, you don't get to do that every day, or year, for that matter. Here goes.

In his section entitled "The domestication of religion" (pp. 167-74), Dennett shows himself perfectly aware that religion can be, and repeatedly is, hijacked and exploited by those, both clerical and secular, who seek power over others. "Curious practitioners" (or kleptocrats, as he calls them a few lines later) "will also have uncovered whatever Good Tricks are in the nearest neighborhoods in the Design Space of possible religions" (p. 171). In other words, religious beliefs are consciously and purposely manipulated by the powerful for the powerful.

That was in Chapter 7. By Chapter 10 he's forgotten all about that. (All these nouveau-atheist books have an air of being hastily thrown together for a quick buck.) Now, "Those who feel guilty contemplating 'betraying' the tradition they love by acknowledging their disapproval of elements within it"--those , for example, who feel uneasy over the darker aspects of Christianity--"should reflect on the fact that the very tradition to which they are so in fact the evolved product of many adjustments firmly but delicately made by earlier lovers of the same tradition" (p. 292, my italics).

No it's not, Dan. You yourself just said it's not. The Kurious Kleptocrats did it. Or at least a lot of it.

You can't have it both ways. Beliefs were produced either by "lovers of the same tradition"--true believers--or by power-greedy kleptocrats manipulating the faithful. Dennett can't wriggle out of this by saying, of course some were produced by one lot and some by the other. True, he hasn't claimed ALL religious beliefs are just "Good Tricks" pulled by the unscrupulous, but he HAS claimed that whole religious tradition s accumulate from the words and works of true believers.

Why? Because atheists want to have it both ways They want to ridicule religion by every available means, so its deliberate manipulation as a means of social control has to be brought in somewhere. At the same time, given the scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners strategy they've chosen (and I'll tell you why they chose it in a later post), they want to show there's no real difference between liberals and fundamentalists--liberals are vainly hoping to dodge the Just Wrath of the Atheist by disavowing the less defensible aspects of their faith, and no atheist worth his byline in the MSM is going to let a little thing like logic save them from their just deserts.

As I'll later show, what's wrong with Christianity--which, in point of fact, is not really Christianity at all, but the sinister hybrid Judeo-Christianity--was not, for the most part, the work of "earlier lovers of the tradition", but stems, in large part, from political manipulation from both inside and outside the Church. But thoughts like this are impossible for "free-thinkers". For them, there can't be "something that has gone wrong" with any religion, for at least two reasons.

One, religions are bad throughout, so atheists lose face if they admit that any religion ever was, or ever could be, anything but bad through and through. Two, by defining personal religion out of the equation, and focusing solely on religion as a form of social organization, Dennett automatically rules out any scenario involving conflict between individual and social (the blind sheep are supposed to swallow the kelptocrats' Good Tricks, hook, line and sinker). After all, those tricks are memes, and memes are sinister viruses that, willy-nilly, infest and infect our species, no less irresistibly than, in days of yore, Dawkins' Selfish Genes manipulated those lumbering robots who naively thought they were human individuals with free will.

And that's another piece I'd thought of doing, on Dennett's meme-infatuation. But I'm going to reserve that for a post still a half-dozen stops down the line, called "The Credulity of the Skeptic". This will deal with all the remarkable things that our pious unbelievers actually do believe in, from WMDs in Iraq and jihadi serial virgin-deflowerers to the official 9/11 story and the meme.

Don't believe in God but believe in memes? I mean, come on!

For next time, I promise you Something Completely Different. I'm going to do what both sides have very significantly failed to do, so far. That is, place the debate firmly in the context of human history.