Sunday, February 26, 2006

Atheism, still a hard sell

Throughout much of the Western industrialized world (the US is an exception) secularism is advancing. Fewer and fewer people regularly attend church. One reason for the growing conflict with the Islamic diaspora in Western Europe is that immigrants of that faith cling to older habits of religious observance, while the traditional citizens of the host society do not.

Even among secularists, though, atheism is today a hard sell. Why should this be so?


First appearing in France in the sixteenth century, the term athéisme served as an epithet to be deployed against scientists, religious doubters and critics, materialist philosophers, and others thought to represent a threat to established beliefs. The charge was almost invariably denied. And indeed, many, such as Thomas Hobbes, Baruch de Spinoza, and Denis Diderot, who were charged with being atheists, were not.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, atheism was ceasing to be a dangerous label that required denial, and was evolving into a position openly avowed by some. The first open denial of the existence of god and avowal of atheism may be that of Paul Baron d'Holbach (1723–1789) in his 1770 work, The System of Nature.

Afterwards, the French Revolution of 1789 catapulted atheistic thought into political prominence, and opened the way for the nineteenth-century movements of Rationalism, Freethought, and Liberalism. An early atheistic influence in Germany was The Essence of Christianity (1840) by Ludwig Feuerbach. He influenced other German nineteenth-century atheistic thinkers like Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. In some respects atheism reached its high water mark in the nineteenth century, an aspect of the paradox noted at the outset.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the iconoclastic German philosopher, is well-known for coining the aphorism "God is dead" ("Gott ist tot"). Nietzsche held that Christian theism as a belief system had promoted an illusory system of values, which he scathingly characterized as a slave mentality. Even though this meant a venture on a journey with an unknown destination, it was best to abandon the illusion.

State support of atheism and opposition to organized religion was made policy in all communist states, including the People’s Republic of China and the former Soviet Union. This commitment was, in the first instance, part of the heritage of Karl Marx. In theory and in practice these states were secular. The justifications given for the social and political repression of religious organizations addressed, on one hand, the "irrationality" of religious belief, and on the other the "parasitical" nature of the relationship between the church and the population. Up to a point churches were tolerated, but were subject to strict control.

To the dismay of some, the United States retains some theistic trappings. Its currency bears the legend "In God We Trust," and the Pledge of Allegiance now includes the words "one nation under God." While some secularists regard these affirmations as dangerous anomalies, most tolerate them as traditionalist survivals, of little practical consequence. Some American states, such as Massachusetts, retain blasphemy laws; however, these laws are rarely enforced, if at all.


Some proponents of atheism, and neutral observers as well, distinguish several major traditions. The first of these understands atheism very broadly, as including both strong atheists and weak atheists. Strong atheism, also known as hard atheism or positive atheism, is the belief that no deities exist. Weak atheism, sometimes called soft atheism, negative atheism, or neutral atheism, is the absence of belief in the existence of deities without the definite conclusion that deities do not exist. Some weak atheists hold that theism and strong atheism are equally untenable, on the grounds that faith is required both to assert and to deny the existence of deities, and as such both theism and strong atheism have the burden of proof placed on them to demonstrate that a god does or does not exist. Some also base their conviction on the notion that it is impossible to prove a negative. A difficulty with this dual typology is that weak atheism, as defined here, trenches on agnosticism, which many hold is a different matter altogether.

The second tradition understands atheism more narrowly, as the conscious rejection of theism, and does not consider absence of theistic belief or suspension of judgment concerning theism to be forms of atheism. Using this definition, "implicit atheism," lack of theism without its conscious rejection, may not qualify as atheistic at all, and the umbrella term nontheism may be used in its place. A third tradition, more common among laypeople, understands atheism even more narrowly. In this view, atheism is defined categorically as the belief that there is no God.

George H. Smith coined the terms implicit atheism and explicit atheism. Smith defines
implicit atheism as "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it." Explicit atheism is defined as "the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it", which, according to Smith, is sometimes called antitheism. For Smith, explicit atheism is subdivided further according to whether or not the rejection is on rational grounds. The term critical atheism is used to label the view that belief in god is irrational, and is itself subdivided into a) the view usually expressed by the statement "I do not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being"; b) the view usually expressed by the statement, "god does not exist" or "the existence of god is impossible"; and c) the view which "refuses to discuss the existence or nonexistence of a god" because "the concept of a god is unintelligible."

Atheism is often decried as promoting immorality. However, this contention is in dispute, and some would assert conversely that atheism, by encouraging a realistic view of the world that is free of illusions, actually makes individuals more moral. Be that as it may, these considerations have nothing to do with the plausibility, or not, of atheism as a doctrine.

Nonetheless, it has proved difficult to purge the term atheism of its aura of disparagement. One of the reasons for the popularity of euphemistic alternative terms like "secularist," "empiricist," or "bright" is that atheism still has pejorative connotations arising from attempts at suppression and from its association with the everyday perception of atheism ("godless" is still used as an abusive epithet).

Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, the originators of the term "Bright," made this position explicit in a 2003 essay:
"Our personal frustration regarding labels reached culmination last fall when we were invited to join a march on Washington as "Godless Americans." The causes of the march were worthy, and the march itself well planned and conducted. However, to unite for common interests under a disparaging term like godless (it also means "wicked") seemed ludicrous! Why accept and utilize the very derogatory language that so clearly hampers our own capacity to play a positive and contributing role in our communities and in the nation and world?"

Somewhat similarly, Gaskin abandoned the term atheism in favor of "unbelief," citing "the pejorative associations of the term, its vagueness, and later the tendency of religious apologists to define atheism so that no one could be an atheist."

Agnosticism is clearly distinct from strong atheism. A problem with the concept of weak atheism, though, is that it tends to overlap with agnosticism, disregarding the often strongly held view of agnostics that they are not atheists.

Ignosticism (a neologism) is the view that the question of whether or not deities exist is inherently meaningless. It is a view that is common among philosophers known as logical positivists. Rudolph Carnap and A. J. Ayer held that talk of gods is literally nonsense. According to ignostics, "Does a god exist?" has the same logical status as "What color is Saturday?"; they are both nonsensical, and thus have no meaningful answers. The use of the word "god" is simply a matter of semantics to ignostics, confronting us with relatively trivial problems of word use and technicalities rather than with existence and reality. In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer stated that theism, atheism, and agnosticism were equally meaningless, insofar as they treat the question of the existence of God as a real question.

Some further, perhaps scholastic definitions follow. Agnostic atheism attempts to fuse atheism or nontheism with agnosticism, the epistemological that the existence or nonexistence of deities is unknown (weak agnosticism) or unknowable (strong agnosticism).Agnostic atheism is typically contrasted with agnostic theism, the belief that deities exist even though it is impossible to know that deities exist, and with gnostic atheism, the belief that there is enough information to determine that deities do not exist.

Agnostic atheism's definition varies, just as the definitions of agnosticism and atheism do. It may be a combination of lack of theism with strong agnosticism, the view that it is impossible to know whether deities exist to any reliable degree. It may also be a combination of lack of theism with weak agnosticism, the view that there is not currently enough information to decide whether or not a deity exists, but that there may be enough in the future.

Antitheism typically refers to a direct opposition to theism. As such, it may be regarded as a form of critical strong atheism. Antitheism may sometimes overlap with ignosticism, the view that theism is inherently meaningless, and may directly contradict apatheism, the view that theism is irrelevant rather than dangerous. However, antitheism is also sometimes employed, particularly in religious contexts, to refer to opposition to God or divine things, rather than to the belief in God. Using the latter definition, it may be possible to be an antitheist without being an atheist or nontheist. Antitheists may believe that theism is actually harmful, or may simply be atheists who have little tolerance for views they perceive as irrational. Strong atheists who are not antitheists may hold positively that deities do not exist, but not regard theism as directly harmful, requiring antagonistic opposition.

Whew! Enough of that.

Ideally, to be sure, such issues should be discussed in a calm atmosphere of making distinctions and clarifications, seeking to enable the parties better able to understand one another. Many, however, are not prepared to leave the matter at that. The horror expressed towards atheists by adherents of established religions has been a constant. This point does not require further elaboration. More surprising, however, is the stance of some strong atheists, who vociferously insist on the unique truth of their own position. In this way, they mirror, perhaps unintentionally, the exclusivist fervor of their main opponents, the theists. These militant atheists tar all who do not subscribe to their views with the same brush, demanding that their opponents provide "proof." For theists that question may be appropriate. It does not apply, though, to agnostics, ignostics, and others who adopt an intermediate position—these people have nothing to prove. Rather, in my opinion, it is the militant atheist who must prove his or her stance.


The above discussion derives from several sources. Some of it (and there is much more to be said) may be regarded as hairsplitting. Despite the growth of secularism, there is still much social disapproval of atheists, especially in the United States. Hence, the effort to rebrand, as seen in the term "bright." (I note parenthetically that such attempts at label switching may be unintentionally revealing. In India, the Untouchables are now known officially as the Harijan, or "children of God," but the stigma unfortunately remains.)

Still, some contemporary defenders of atheism have sought to grasp the nettle unflinchingly, advocating some version of strong atheism, sometimes fortified by other elements, such as the evolutionary-psychology approach.

Daniel Dennett, a well-regarded contemporary philosopher, has just published a book entitled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett approaches the matter from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology. In earlier stages of human existence, religion, though an illusion, was nonetheless functional. Today, in vastly changed socioeconomic circumstances, religion lingers as a holdover. Dennett’s hypothetico-inductive approach has not been well received. Still, if the problem of belief in gods is to be resolved, some application of historical psychology is mandatory.

In an Internet colloquy I broached the matter of why strong atheism, assuming that it is self-evidently true, still meets so much resistance. In this light a comparison with cosmology came up, as an paradigmatic instance of how older inadequate views were overthrown and replaced with correct ones. In fact the comparison of heliocentrism (the belief that the earth and the planets revolve around the sun) with atheism, proposed by an Internet colleague, points to some sobering conclusions regarding the logical status of atheism in our society. During the Middle Ages--prior to Copernicus--Dicuil and Nicolas Oresme formulated theories positing the revolution of the earth and the planets around the sun. Their conclusions, while correct, had no resonance. That is because knowledge is socially defined. After experiencing a century of great resistance, Copernicus' findings achieved consensus, indeed overwhelming consensus. The trajectory of strong atheism is not the same.The concept of the test of time is all-important. Heliocentrism passed this test long ago; strong atheism has yet to do so, despite some adepts’ peremptory assurances to the contrary. Drawing up such a historical balance sheet is not simply a matter of saying that "the doctrine with the most votes wins." Heliocentrism not only has the most votes, it is supported by every competent expert. Most importantly, the assumptions implicit in heliocentrism have proven remarkable fertile, leading to many other cosmological discoveries. Strong atheism, by contrast, does not seem to lead to anything.

One reason why conclusions in this realm are premature is the fact that we live in what is possibly the most exciting period in the entire history of physics. With string theory, multiverses and other foci of investigation, it is a period of extraordinary ebullition--and uncertainty. For that reason it is premature to don a mask of certitude regarding the ground of being of the cosmos.

Recently, and in part for the reason just mentioned, the emphasis has shifted away from the battleground of the proof/disproof of the existence of God so dear to many. The interest now is how humanity could have entertained these ideas with such tenacity. This issue is pressing whether or not the propensity is hard-wired or not (as is, mutatis mutandis, the issue of homosexuality). Any valid diachronic study of religion would have to start by forgetting about the relatively provincial, johnny-come-lately views of Abrahamic monotheism, and confront the fact that, prior to Akhnaten (d. ca. 1352 BCE), no one has ever been identified as having departed from polytheism. One must also address such perplexing issues as the near universality of such imperatives as taboo and mana (dangerous and charismatic sites), animal sacrifice, and the like.

Understanding the history of religion requires specificity. That is the reason why the hypothetico-deductive method, as espoused by Dennett, is as such inadequate. Still, it seems appropriate to try to understand the origins and appeal of religion, instead of simply denouncing it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The "God Is Love" Encyclical

Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) is the first encyclical written by Pope Benedict XVI. Comprising almost 16,000 words, it was promulgated on January 25, 2006 in Latin and in several translations, including English. Reportedly, Benedict wrote the first half in German, his native tongue. The second half stems from an unfinished text left by his predecessor, John Paul II. The encyclical is thus a collaboration, though final responsibility rests with the present pontiff. The Latin title of the encyclical is a quotation from the First Letter of St. John, 4:16, translated from the original Greek "ho theos agape estin." In most contemporary English translations the expression reads "God is love." The exposition pivots on the concepts of eros (possessive, often sexual, love), agape (unconditional, self-sacrificing love), logos (the word), and their relationship with the teachings of Jesus.

In view of the severe reputation attaching to the prepontifical Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, some were surprised that his first encyclical should focus on such a positive, apparently worldly theme, including a positive role for sexual expression. The emphasis is still on sex within marriage, and only within marriage. The novelty—a departure I think from Augustinian thinking—is that carnal sex can be approved in that situation, providing it serves as a bridge to spiritual love. In addition, there is a kind of cosmic dimension, as love, understood as agape, is supposed to inhere in Christ and in this way radiate throughout the world. While indications of mellowing are indeed welcoming, one should not be too carried away. There is no indication that the pope looks with any favor on sexual love conducted outside the marriage context, and then of course it must follow guidelines supplied by the Church.

The topic of love has been much discussed since the ancient Greeks (and even before), without much progress towards a final definition. Some would throw up their hands and say that this is a hopelessly confused concept. In Ulysses James Joyce hesitated, then decided not to utter the word. But too many sensitive individuals have seen it as richly interconnected and indeed central to human existence.

Clearly the pope thinks that love is more than a four-letter word.

Benedict’s encyclical is liberally sprinkled with scriptural references, but in fact depends crucially on two non-Catholic, heretical sources.The first stems from the Lutheran bishop of Lund, Anders Nygren (1890-1978). In his book known in English as Eros and Agape (Swedish original 1930), Nygren sought to ground in the New Testament a fundamental contrast between eros and agape. Eros is the more carnal, "biological" form of love, agape is its spiritual sublimation. While Benedict purloins Nygren’s two key terms, the opinion that eros is inherently good departs from Nygren’s view that agape is the only truly Christian kind of love, and that eros is an expression of the individual's selfish desires, turning us away from God.

In fact the New Testament does not use the contrast of eros and agape to state such a fundamental conceptual contrast. As Benedict concedes, the word eros occurs nowhere in the New Testament. Koine Greek had in fact replaced eros with agape--the meaning is essentially the same--as part of normal linguistic evolution, much in the way that in everyday English "to cry" has supplanted "to weep" (though the meaning of the latter is still recognized). By the same token one could evolve a sophisticated contrast between crying and weeping, but it is not inherent in the use of the words. Note that Dante managed perfectly well with "amore" alone. (Yes, as the song goes, "it's amore.")

Discarding Nygren's misleading philology, one may still argue that there is a difference between lust and spiritual love, however phrased. The former may enjoy some aura of toleration if it is recognized that it may lead to the latter. This formulation, however, takes us in an even more dangerous direction as it stems from Plato. And Plato famously believed that it was erotic attraction to b o y s that constituted the first step on this ladder of progression to beatitude.

This is the myth Plato ascribes to Aristophanes in the Symposium, to wit, that the primal ancestors of human beings were originally three types of double-beings, one male-male, the second female-female, and the third male-female. After the gods separated us, we eternally long to return to our mate, male (like ourselves in the first case), female (like ourselves in the second), and finally of the opposite sex (in the third case). Among other things this myth is (I believe) the origin of the expression "better half." A variant of it may have survived in the Genesis expression "they became one flesh." Plato's myth is almost certainly of Middle Eastern origin.

Theologically Ratzinger attached himself to a movement called "resourcement," with its center in France. Theologians like Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou sought to return to Origen and the other Greek patristic thinkers, and above all to St. Augustine. Part of this landscape was a shadowy figure known as Plato Christianus, a Christianized Plato.

Two other surprising sources may be briefly noted. In considering eros, Benedict refers to a line from Vergil's Eclogues, X, 69, "Omnia vincit amor, et nos cedamus amori" ("Love conquers all, let us also yield to love"). This is an odd borrowing, since the second poem in Vergil’s cycle extols the passionate homosexual love of the shepherd Corydon. The pontiff also notes (though without approval) the opinion of Friedrich Nietzsche that Christianity has poisoned eros, turning it into a vice.

As this brief analysis shows, the encyclical is a composite reflecting various sources. Perhaps this is true of most intellectual creations of this kind. Still, in the light of the text’s various sources, it is hard to see it as simply an unalloyed reflection of abiding truths as preserved in Scripture and maintained, without alteration, by Holy Church.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The myth of the Islamic Golden Age

Most observers of the violence in Islamic countries triggered by the cartoon controversy would agree that this turbulence is but the surface manifestation of deeper strains. Among them are a sense of humiliation engendered by the US incursion in Iraq and the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli struggle; the grievances (justified or not) of the Muslim diaspora in Western Europe; and the corruption of their own governments.

So far, so good. Yet a proper appreciation of the disturbances requires a much longer time frame. In a nutshell that is as follows. Today the West is powerful; Islam is nearly powerless (and would be completely so, if it were not for oil). This is not the way things were supposed to work. Supplanting Judaism and Christianity and taking its place as the final, perfected version of the Abrahamic religious tradition, Islam must also foster the most advanced society. For many centuries after the Islamic conquests beginning in the seventh century, this was indeed the case—or so we are told. Islam led the world in the arts and sciences and overall quality of life. Then something mysterious happened. Islam was knocked off its throne, and the West usurped its place. In this way, to use crude language, Islam went from being a "top" to a "bottom," while the West ceased to be a bottom and became a top. This is quite a reversal.
This metamorphosis has elicited various explanations. The geographical situation of the West turned out to be more advantageous, especially with regard to colonizing the New World. The challenges of a cold climate and a relatively undeveloped agriculture caused Westerners to rise to the challenge, in a way that the more easy-going situation of a semitropical environment did not. Or perhaps the answer lies in the realm of ideas. The West experienced the Reformation, ushering in an age of religious pluralism. By contrast, Islam has never had a Reformation.

My own answer is that the question is largely a pseudo-problem. Islam was never so advantageously seated with regard to the West. By the year 1300 the population of Europe attained, demographers have estimated, one hundred million people. Reliable estimates are hard to find in the far-flung realms of Islam, but I suspect that core Muslim lands, much of them desert, also held about one hundred million people.

Unaccountably absent in this balance sheet is China. The population of Song and Yuan China was in fact more than one hundred million, and Sinic society had achieved countless technological advances, from printing and ceramics to gun powder and large seagoing vessels guided by the compass. China had successfully exported its civilization to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Today this heritage forms the basis of he mighty engines of the East Asian economies. So it is not just the West that has shown up the pretensions of Islamic triumphalism, but even more the East, which, being for the most part neither Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim, had no benefit of the Abrahamic heritage.

In short it is important to bear in mind (as many, such as that overrated mountebank Bernard Lewis, do not) that there were t h r e e major players in the Old World—China and Far Eastern civilization; Islam; and the Christian West. The Crusaders had tried their hand at overthrowing Islam, and eventually failed. But the East succeeded, through the fury of the Mongols. When Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was clear that religious superiority, presumed or real, was no magic talisman, protecting Islam from unbelievers. Today, many think, it is East Asia, not Islam, that will supplant the West. The jihadists and Muslim supremacists may defeat the West, but then they will have to reckon with an even more formidable enemy, one which does not present the "soft underbelly" of compliant liberal institutions.

Let us return to our main theme. In the high middle ages the three societies were roughly equal. Then the West became dominant. In the event, Islam turned out to an "also ran," poor marks for the True Faith.

Viewed as it is in a cracked mirror, this world-historical disappointment fuels much of the rage of the Muslims. The rage will continue, but the imbalance is not likely to be addressed. There is no way of generating prosperity and intellectual freedom where the conditions of these are lacking.

Let us look more closely at the supposed triumphs of medieval Islam, when it was supposedly on top (though in reality probably China was). We must address the myth of the Islamic Golden Age.

Medieval Islamic science is thought to be its crown jewel. Yet what is meant by Islamic in this sense? Non-Muslims--Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians--laid the foundations for this science. They relied mainly on Hellenic sources, but also Persian and Indian ones. Empirical findings risked being disregarded if they challenged the authority of the Koran in any way. In astronomy Islamic toponymics has of course left significant traces in the star map: Aldbeberan, Betelgeuse, Rigel. However, Islamic astronomy remained tied to Ptolemy’s Almagest. As such, it was incapable of freeing itself from geocentrism—there never was an Arab Copernicus. Algebra, to be sure, bears an Arabic name, but the basis of the discipline is Greek. Moreover, the "Arabic" numbers were originally Indian. It was the Indians who invented the all-important concept of zero.

What is usually termed Islamic philosophy consisted mainly of footnotes to the Greek thinkers. Philosophy always had a precarious situation, threatened by the perception of any encroachment on religious orthodoxy. Restrictions on freedom of thought are summed up by the concept of the "closing of the gate of Ijtihad." Somewhat loosely, one can render ijtihad as "freedom of thought." In the light of this event, which may have occurred as long as a thousand years ago, there is no longer any room for debate on many key questions. Today the Muslim intelligentsia, the ulema, is extraordinarily diffuse in its distribution. Yet the melancholy truth is that this body of thinkers has achieved uniformity on such subjects as homosexuality, the status of women, and the lending of money for interest. For a long time, there has been no room for debate on these matters.

In short, "Golden Age" achievements in science and philosophy occurred not because of Islam but in spite of it.

But what about those accounts of Western scholars traveling to Moorish Spain to study and translate Islamic versions of the Greek scientific classics? Such reports are true, but in due course Europe learned that there were better versions of these texts, in the original Greek, housed in the libraries of Byzantium.

And what about those numerous, well-stocked libraries of Andalusia that we hear about? Once again, this claim is misleading. By and large the "libraries" consisted of locked cabinets in madrasas containing a few battered Korans and commentaries. Moorish civilization was in fact a condominium, established on both sides of the straits. Morocco, not ravaged by the Catholic kings, had a similar culture and similar wealth. If there were great libraries they should have flourished in Morocco as well as in al-Andalus. Where are Morocco’s great libraries?

In art the flourishing craft traditions fostered the creation of many beguiling objects in metalwork, pottery, illuminated manuscripts. Yet Islam created no Giotto or Raphael; no Rembrandt or Rubens. This was not because of a supposed ban on images—there are plenty of images in manuscripts, but because painting as such never developed as a major art.
So the fabled Golden Age of Islam is mostly a myth. But what about the West? Wasn’t it shrouded in darkness, dependent on cultural imports from Islam? Not very much. Gothic architecture, one of the most splendid achievements of Europe’s "Dark Age,"was not originally "Saracen." Scholars have long exploded that claim. And the intricate rhymes and strophe patterns of Provençal poetry, so far from being derived from Islam, served in fact as the model for Arabic works of similar character in Andalusia. Paper, it is true, came to us from Islamic lands, but the Muslims had purloined the technique from the Chinese.

In the theory and practice of politics, Islam never developed any tradition of representative government or a doctrine of the separation of powers. Religious and secular authority were inextricably mixed in Islam. In Islamic tradition the concept of the rule of law as we know it is absent, as this requires a powerful tradition of secular law. With its mixture of Roman law and the common law, the West successfully forged such an instrument. Islam only created Shari’a law, which, bizarrely, its adepts wish to impose on Western Europe. Until the recent controversial insistence on introducing this religious law, the Western tradition of jurisprudence remained the norm throughout the world, including such countries as Turkey, India, and Japan.

Perhaps the least known accomplishment of the West lies in its ability to bridge science, on the one hand, and daily life on the other. Wind mills and water mills were already known in ancient times. Yet they proliferated only after 1000 in Western Europe. Experiments with their gears and drives led to the creation of a host of other machines. In a development that culminated in the Industrial Revolution, Europe became a culture of machines. Burdened by a fatuous sense of its own superiority, Islam was very slow to accept Western machines.
Why did the West become so mechanically conscious? The answer lies in large measure in social structure. Although there were large serf populations, slavery as such died out in Western Europe (unlike Islam, where reputedly the peculiar institution survives until this day). Absence of slaves (yielding a labor shortage, abetted eventually by the Black Death), required substitutes of a nonhuman variety. To tend these machines a new class of artisans arose, outside of the normal triad of clergy, nobles, and serfs. Eventually the advance of the interests of the artisans and the cultivation of machines became inseparable.
Such was the accomplishment of "Dark Age" Europe.

In the foregoing I have sought to expose the myth of the Islamic Golden Age. But of course it took two to tango. It became conventional wisdom to laud Islam’s splendor in contrast to the West’s squalor.

Whence did the complementary myth of Europe’s Dark Ages arise? Historians of ideas have traced it back to the Renaissance, whose adepts sought to differentiate themselves in this manner from the preceding Gothic period. However, the notion of the Dark Ages only really came into its own in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when writers like Gibbon and Voltaire sought to exalt Islam (Golden Age myth and all) as a counterweight to Christianity.
Nineteenth-century Romantics shifted attention to Moorish Spain, viewed in its full pathos as one of history’s great lost causes. A well-known American example is the tales of The Alhambra (1832) by Washington Irving. To be sure, the expulsion of the Moors, following that of the Jews, served to impoverish the cultural life of the Peninsula, as Germán Arciniegas and others have emphasized. What is often forgotten, however, is that starting in the eleventh century much of the brilliance of Moorish civilization had been extinguished by two puritanical Berber groups, the Almoravids and Almohads.

For different reasons, then, Westerners and Muslims alike have had an interest in promoting the myth of Golden Age Islam. The former were seeking to castigate certain trends in their own society; the latter to recover a glorious past. It is time, though, to take off the rose-colored glasses.

PS For the most part my arguments against the myth of Islam’s Golden Age are not new. For a recent contribution along these lines, see Serge Trifkovic’s polemic The Sword of Islam (2000).
What I have added are two comparative points. 1) The European Middle Ages were not simply a horrible nightmare of barbarism and ignorance, as the Enlightenment would have it. Its achievements, particularly in the realm of technology, were extraodinary. I may return to this theme later. 2) The record has been distorted by the omission of a third major player, China. Kenneth Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, 2000) has argued, convincingly I think, that that the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was the most advanced of its day, outpacing both Islam and Europe. Those who extol medieval Islam charge doubters with ethnocentrism. They themselves are guilty of this fault, because they regularly omit China.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Cheney drinks, shoots, and leaves

It is now almost a week since the incident in which vice-president Dick Cheney shot a fellow hunter in the face. For a while the condition of the victim, Harry Whittington, was serious. He has now been released from the hospital, disfigured. In a remarkable display of abjection, Whittington has apologized for causing Cheney trouble. That plea merits the adjective aptly applied to Fred Barnes' apologia for Bush: fellatial.

There are some suggestive similarities with the Vince Foster case. Foster, a lawyer working in the Clinton White House who suffered from depression, killed himself on July 20, 1993, in Fort Marcy Park in northern Virginia. It was alleged that before Foster’s office could be sealed, Clinton operatives removed certain documents. The perception of discrepancies in the Foster death and the way it was handled allowed all sorts of fantastic speculation to arise about the possibility of murder, moving the body, and so forth.

Likewise, in this case the talk will go on. Anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with British murder mysteries on PBS knows that it is not good procedure to leave the guests in the country house by themselves all night to concoct a story. You interview them before they have had time to conspire.

At the Texas ranch, we know of one concoction. Evidently sticking to a collective story, Armstrong and Whittington affirmed that no alcohol was consumed at lunch. Cheney, though, departed from the script, admitting that he had had a beer. I suppose he could have concealed it under his protective gear, so that Armstrong and Whittingdon didn’t see, but the most likely conclusion is that Armstrong and Whittington were lying. Reputedly Cheney was thrown out of Yale for drinking. He has two drunken driving incidents on his record. Unlike his boss, Cheney has never stopped drinking. Indeed, he "mixed himself a drink" after the shooting incident.

On that fatal Friday when was the beer consumed? If it was downed by one o'clock, fine, I gusee. If Cheney continued the imbibing until three PM or so, not fine. Also (shades of Clinton's "is" testimony), what is "a beer"? A friend with a drinking problem thinks that a 24 oz. is a small beer--a "normal" one is 40 oz. Cheney has lots of enemies, even (or especially) among Republicans.

These people are not going to desist because of two statements to the media, by Cheney and Bush respectively. Cheney is guilty of many things, most glaringly his relentless insistence on the Iraq invasion and occupation. In that sense the shooting is symbolic. He has sent thousands of young Americans to die or be maimed in the Middle East. For those victims he has shown no remorse. Cheney has not been good for the national interest. He should be held to account. So far he has not been. But in the end we may face a case of Al Capone being nailed for income-tax evasion.

I hope they go for it.

PS An acquaintance notes that some drinkers do not consider beer alcoholic, reserving the A word for such hard stuff as vodka or whisky. How does that play when one is pulled ovdeer for drunken driving. Armed with that excuse I can't wait for TGIF time. I’ll have beer for lunch, and then go out for a spin. Oh, but I don’t drive. Well, I can always grab a gun and shoot somebody. I don't have a gun, so I guess a knife will have to do. Drinking? "No I only had a soft drink. You know—beer."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Eclecticism in excelsis

Even casual readers of this blog will notice that it spans a wide variety of topics. I give fair warning—you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Some might think that I should sort out the topics and provide a kind of index, running alongside the blog entries. Yet as will become clear, that procedure is not feasible.

I have always been eclectic in my interests. Now that I am no longer a college professor, required to give courses in a specific field, I am free to explore long deferred concerns.

A recent inventory disclosed that I am preoccupied with more than one-hundred different themes. I doubt that I will get around to addressing them all. One of the benefits of blogging is that it allows one to separate major interests from subordinate ones.

Here, at all events, is the list—

Abstract art—American founders—Amerindian cultures—Anglo-Saxons--anthropological theory—apocalyptic—archaeology (Old World)—architecture, modern—arithmology and number symbolism—art history (theory and history of the discipline)—astronomy and cosmology.

Bach—baroque music—Bible—biology (history and theory of)—Buddhism.

California--cartography—cathedrals and abbeys—Céline--censorship—Chicago—China—Chinese characters--Christianity (history of)—church architecture and adornment—city planning--classical studies—Cocteau--Communism—criticism (literary)—culture wars.

Dante—Darwinism—decadence—dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Egyptology—Eliot (T.S.)—erotic art and literature—etymologies—economics (history of).

Fascisms—film history—French literature—Futurism.

Gay studies—German literature—Goethe—Gothic revival—Greece, ancient.

Hebrew origins—Historiography—Hobbes.

Ibsen—iconography—India—international languages—Ireland (early)--Islam.

Japan—Jesus problem.


Lexicography--libertarianism—linguistics—London—Los Angeles—legal history and theory.

Machiavelli--Marcus Aurelius—Mallarmé—manuscripts, illuminated—Marxism--medieval studies—Mexico—museology--music, classical.

New York City—Nietzsche.


Paris—pasigraphy—PC critiques—Pessoa—photography (history)—Picasso--Plato—Plotinus—poetry, modern--political theory--Popper—Pound—Poussin--pre-Columbian civilizations—printing and typography—Proust—psychoanalysis (critiques)—psychology.

Religion (theory of)—rhetoric—Rimbaud—rock art—Romanesque—Romance philology—Rome and Roman architecture—Russian modernism—Ruskin.

Schemata and mind maps—science (philosophy of)—science fiction—sex research—Shakespeare—slang and argot—Spanish literature.

Transatlantic migration (scholars)—travel guides and literature.


Vienna—visual poetry.

Wagner—Whitman—Wright (F.L.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Cartoon furor

Out of the blue came the furor unleashed by a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Or so it seems.

The matter might have been of little significance if it had not been magnified by other issues that have been festering in the longer term. 1) There is increasing tension between large Muslim minorities and the host societies in Western Europe. The Muslims are perceived as wanting the host society to adopt their standards, rather than vice versa—the general pattern of immigrants who, the logic of the situation suggests, must assimilate the core values of their new countries. Until recently, European intellectuals and the authorities in those nations have tended to look the other way, even when the oppression of women and homophobia were involved. Implicated in this neglect are political correctness, ethical relativism, and simple cowardice and laziness. Now the mood seems to be changing: hence the cartoons. 2) The other underlying factor is the perception among Muslims that the main purpose of the Iraq war is to weaken Islam. Polls have shown this view to be prevalent from Morocco to Indonesia, and it is clearly shared by many Muslims in Western Europe as well.

These two factors created a tinderbox in which an otherwise somewhat trivial set of drawings has created a furor that ricochets from one country to another.

Here, somewhat edited, is the Wikipedia account of the origins of the affair.
"The Muhammad cartoons controversy began after complaints were made about twelve editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. The cartoons appeared in a major Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005. Some of the cartoons were reprinted in the Norwegian Christian journal Magazinet on January 10, 2006, and later in the German newspaper Die Welt, the French daily France Soir, and several other European newspapers. In response to an outcry from the Muslim community, Raymond Lakah, the Franco-Egyptian (and Roman Catholic) owner of France Soir, terminated the employment of the chief editor.

"The drawings, which include a depiction of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, were meant as satirical illustrations accompanying an article on self-censorship and freedom of speech. Jyllands-Posten commissioned and published the cartoons in response to the difficulty of Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen to find artists to illustrate his children's book about Muhammad, for fear of violent attacks by extremist Muslims. Islamic teachings forbid the depiction of Muhammad as a measure against idolatry; however, in the past there have been non-satirical depictions of Muhammad by Muslims [note the contradiction in this sentence]. Although Jyllands-Posten maintains that the drawings were an exercise in free speech, many people (Muslim and otherwise) in Denmark and elsewhere view them as provocative, offensive, disrespectful, blasphemic and islamophobic."

"In reaction to the articles, several death threats have been made, resulting in two newspaper cartoonists reportedly going into hiding, and the newspaper enhancing its security precautions. The foreign ministries of eleven Islamic countries demanded action from the Danish government, and Libya eventually closed its embassy in Denmark in protest after the government refused to censure the newspaper or apologize. The Danish prime minister said, ‘The government refuses to apologize because the government does not control the media or a newspaper outlet; that would be in violation of the freedom of speech.’ A large consumer boycott was organized in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and elsewhere in other Arabic speaking countries. Recently the foreign ministers of seventeen Islamic countries renewed calls for the Danish government to punish those responsible for the cartoons, and to ensure that such cartoons are not published again. The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League have demanded that the United Nations impose international sanctions upon Denmark. Protests have also taken place against the cartoons."

A newspaper account asserts the following "Under Islamic teachings, any depiction of Muhammad, the faith's founder and messenger of God, is blasphemy, including depictions that are not negative." Such claims are historically unfounded, as there are plenty of depictions of the Prophet in Islamic illuminated manuscripts, whose orthodoxy has never been questioned. In passively accepting such generalizations from poorly informed Muslim scholars the press is not doing its job.

Readers can verify the truth of my assertions by acquiring a handsome book. I was delighted to see that a wonderful facsimile is still available from Amazon at an advantageous price. It is The Miraculous Journey of Mahomet, published by Braziller, with an essay by Marie-Rose Seguy. Made in Herat, Afghanistan, in 1436 the original, a text of the Miraj Nameh, is one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts of all time, with much use of gold and a ravishing ultramarine blue. The Prophet is shown no less than 56 times, sometimes in the company of various other worthies, including, Adam, David and Solomon, and John the Baptist. Contrasting with some other depictions, Muhammad's face appears in every instance, unveiled.

(The Miraj Nameh, of which we have a Turkish version here, is sometimes thought to be one of the sources of Dante's Divine Comedy--a claim that is mistaken in my view.)

If you possibly can, get this book for the art. To be sure, artistic beauty is by no means an attestation of theological truth. If it were, we'd all be worshipping Aphrodite and Apollo.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The inevitability of polyamory/polygamy

Polyamory is a relatively recent term. Yet the condition it describes, the ability to love two or more persons at the same time, seems to be as old as humanity itself. Sometimes these arrangements are formalized in the institution of polygamy. In other instances the polyamory arrangements show a stability and seriousness that approximates to polygamy.
Polygamy has recently become topical. Opponents say that gay marriage will lead us down a slippery slope leading to polygamy. (And, it is claimed to bestiality, as well. As an unlikely destination, I omit bestiality from the discussion.) Supporters of gay marriage are anxious to exclude the possibility that it may lead to polygamy.

In fact anthropologists have documented polygamy in many societies. In our own tradition it is integral to the Hebrew Bible. It seems that it was the ancient Romans who first placed a taboo on polygamy. We have inherited this disapproval.

For that reason this essay will address the issue empirically in broader terms, those of polyamory. I will deal with four concrete examples.

Shortly before his death in 1967, the English writer J. R. Ackerley published a memoir entitled My Father and Myself, in which he reported his finding that his father maintained two households. One was his official family (in which young Ackerley grew up), the second a kind of common law arrangement that constituted a second family. His father was a self-made man who had risen from poverty to manage a prosperous importing business.

At its root, then, this Victorian example is the product of a lower-class negotiation of a particular dilemma. Probably endlessly repeated in Victorian and Edwardian times, the dual-family solution did not come equipped with any sophisticated rationale. These things "just happened." Or did they? In all likelihood we are dealing with a propensity that is hardwired into the human male, and that is not to be satisfied with a single partner.

Of a different order are claims made by creative types, who combined a bohemian sense of casualness in sexual matters with a Nietzschean demand that the artist, obeying his need to create at all costs, is entitled to an exemption from ordinary bourgeois norms of fidelity.
The pioneer abstractionist Vassily Kandinsky came to Munich in 1896, with his Russian wife Anya. Some years later he entered into a liaison with a pupil Gabriele Münter, an intense involvement in which the two excitedly exchanged ideas and painted together. Despite the absorbing nature of this relationship, Kandinsky did not divorce his wife, who continued to reside in the couple’s Munich apartment. However, Kandinsky and Gabriele built a house at Murnau in the Bavarian countryside. The artist went back and forth between the city and the country, an arrangement that lasted until the Kandinskys were expelled from Germany at the beginning of World War I (September 1914)

The American poet Ezra Pound married an Englishwoman, Dorothy Shakespeare, in 1914. A decade later he took up with the violinist Olga Rudge. This liaison produced a child Mary, who was raised by foster parents in the South Tyrol. For most of the rest of his life Pound oscillated between his two mates. During World War II the three uneasily shared a house together in the hills overlooking Rapallo in Italy. It was Dorothy who solicitously tended Pound during the thirteen years in which he was incarcerated in the insane asylum of St. Elizabeth in Washington, DC. After being freed and returning to Italy, the poet finally opted for a life with Olga in Venice.

Louis Kahn, one of America’s greatest architects, surpassed both Kandinsky and Pound by having three families. In the brilliant 2003 film "My Architect" his son Daniel tells the story of how he gradually recovered the truth about his father. As he formed first one, then another liaison, Kahn’s wife stood loyally by him. Within the limitations of his situation, the architect tried faithfully to attend to all three families. Despite these infractions of conventional morality, the architect emerges in the film as a dedicated, caring person. Did he need these complications to create great buildings? Who can say? But what happened happened.

The above examples stem from famous people. However, the tendency they show, that of men to maintain two (or more) significant relationships at the same time is widespread. Though legal recognition is lacking, all these arrangements amount to polygamy.

It is not the case that polygamy may be coming. It is already here.