(Two articles posted here in succession)
(First): The myths and the Real Inquisition
By Thomas Madden, historian at St Louis University
When the sins of the Catholic Church are recited (as they so often are) the Inquisition figures prominently. People with no interest in European history know full well that it was led by brutal and fanatical churchmen who tortured, maimed, and killed those who dared question the authority of the Church. The word "Inquisition" is part of our modern vocabulary, describing both an institution and a period of time. Having one of your hearings referred to as an "Inquisition" is not a compliment for most senators.
But in recent years the Inquisition has been subject to greater investigation. In preparation for the Jubilee in 2000, Pope John Paul II wanted to find out just what happened during the time of the Inquisition's (the institution's) existence. In 1998 the Vatican opened the archives of the Holy Office (the modern successor to the Inquisition) to a team of 30 scholars from around the world. Now at last the scholars have made their report, an 800-page tome that was unveiled at a press conference in Rome on Tuesday. Its most startling conclusion is that the Inquisition was not so bad after all. Torture was rare and only about 1 percent of those brought before the Spanish Inquisition were actually executed. As one headline read "Vatican Downsizes Inquisition."
The amazed gasps and cynical sneers that have greeted this report are just further evidence of the lamentable gulf that exists between professional historians and the general public. The truth is that, although this report makes use of previously unavailable material, it merely echoes what numerous scholars have previously learned from other European archives. Among the best recent books on the subject are Edward Peters's Inquisition (1988) and Henry Kamen's The Spanish Inquisition (1997), but there are others. Simply put, historians have long known that the popular view of the Inquisition is a myth. So what is the truth?
To understand the Inquisition we have to remember that the Middle Ages were, well, medieval. We should not expect people in the past to view the world and their place in it the way we do today. (You try living through the Black Death and see how it changes your attitude.) For people who lived during those times, religion was not something one did just at church. It was science, philosophy, politics, identity, and hope for salvation. It was not a personal preference but an abiding and universal truth. Heresy, then, struck at the heart of that truth. It doomed the heretic, endangered those near him, and tore apart the fabric of community.
The Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. Yes, you read that correctly. Heresy was a crime against the state. Roman law in the Code of Justinian made it a capital offense. Rulers, whose authority was believed to come from God, had no patience for heretics. Neither did common people, who saw them as dangerous outsiders who would bring down divine wrath. When someone was accused of heresy in the early Middle Ages, they were brought to the local lord for judgment, just as if they had stolen a pig or damaged shrubbery (really, it was a serious crime in England). Yet in contrast to those crimes, it was not so easy to discern whether the accused was really a heretic. For starters, one needed some basic theological training — something most medieval lords sorely lacked. The result is that uncounted thousands across Europe were executed by secular authorities without fair trials or a competent assessment of the validity of the charge.
The Catholic Church's response to this problem was the Inquisition, first instituted by Pope Lucius III in 1184. It was born out of a need to provide fair trials for accused heretics using laws of evidence and presided over by knowledgeable judges. From the perspective of secular authorities, heretics were traitors to God and the king and therefore deserved death. From the perspective of the Church, however, heretics were lost sheep who had strayed from the flock. As shepherds, the pope and bishops had a duty to bring them back into the fold, just as the Good Shepherd had commanded them. So, while medieval secular leaders were trying to safeguard their kingdoms, the Church was trying to save souls. The Inquisition provided a means for heretics to escape death and return to the community.
As this new report confirms, most people accused of heresy by the Inquisition were either acquitted or their sentences suspended. Those found guilty of grave error were allowed to confess their sin, do penance, and be restored to the Body of Christ. The underlying assumption of the Inquisition was that, like lost sheep, heretics had simply strayed. If, however, an inquisitor determined that a particular sheep had purposely left the flock, there was nothing more that could be done. Unrepentant or obstinate heretics were excommunicated and given over to secular authorities. Despite popular myth, the Inquisition did not burn heretics. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense, not the Church. The simple fact is that the medieval Inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and even not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule.
During the 13th century the Inquisition became much more formalized in its methods and practices. Highly trained Dominicans answerable to the Pope took over the institution, creating courts that represented the best legal practices in Europe. As royal authority grew during the 14th century and beyond, control over the Inquisition slipped out of papal hands and into those of kings. Instead of one Inquisition there were now many. Despite the prospect of abuse, monarchs like those in Spain and France generally did their best to make certain that their inquisitions remained both efficient and merciful. During the 16th century, when the witch craze swept Europe, it was those areas with the best-developed inquisitions that stopped the hysteria in its tracks. In Spain and Italy, trained inquisitors investigated charges of witches' sabbaths and baby roasting and found them to be baseless. Elsewhere, particularly in Germany, secular or religious courts burned witches by the thousands.
Compared to other medieval secular courts, the Inquisition was positively enlightened. Why then are people in general and the press in particular so surprised to discover that the Inquisition did not barbecue people by the millions? First of all, when most people think of the Inquisition today what they are really thinking of is the Spanish Inquisition. No, not even that is correct. They are thinking of the myth of the Spanish Inquisition. Amazingly, before 1530 the Spanish Inquisition was widely hailed as the best run, most humane court in Europe. There are actually records of convicts in Spain purposely blaspheming so that they could be transferred to the prisons of the Spanish Inquisition. After 1530, however, the Spanish Inquisition began to turn its attention to the new heresy of Lutheranism. It was the Protestant Reformation and the rivalries it spawned that would give birth to the myth.
By the mid 16th century, Spain was the wealthiest and most powerful country in Europe. Europe's Protestant areas, including the Netherlands, northern Germany, and England, may not have been as militarily mighty, but they did have a potent new weapon: the printing press. Although the Spanish defeated Protestants on the battlefield, they would lose the propaganda war. These were the years when the famous "Black Legend" of Spain was forged. Innumerable books and pamphlets poured from northern presses accusing the Spanish Empire of inhuman depravity and horrible atrocities in the New World. Opulent Spain was cast as a place of darkness, ignorance, and evil.
Protestant propaganda that took aim at the Spanish Inquisition drew liberally from the Black Legend. But it had other sources as well. From the beginning of the Reformation, Protestants had difficulty explaining the 15-century gap between Christ's institution of His Church and the founding of the Protestant churches. Catholics naturally pointed out this problem, accusing Protestants of having created a new church separate from that of Christ. Protestants countered that their church was the one created by Christ, but that it had been forced underground by the Catholic Church. Thus, just as the Roman Empire had persecuted Christians, so its successor, the Roman Catholic Church, continued to persecute them throughout the Middle Ages. Inconveniently, there were no Protestants in the Middle Ages, yet Protestant authors found them there anyway in the guise of various medieval heretics. In this light, the medieval Inquisition was nothing more than an attempt to crush the hidden, true church. The Spanish Inquisition, still active and extremely efficient at keeping Protestants out of Spain, was for Protestant writers merely the latest version of this persecution. Mix liberally with the Black Legend and you have everything you need to produce tract after tract about the hideous and cruel Spanish Inquisition. And so they did.
In time, Spain's empire would fade away. Wealth and power shifted to the north, in particular to France and England. By the late 17th century new ideas of religious tolerance were bubbling across the coffeehouses and salons of Europe. Inquisitions, both Catholic and Protestant, withered. The Spanish stubbornly held on to theirs, and for that they were ridiculed. French philosophes like Voltaire saw in Spain a model of the Middle Ages: weak, barbaric, superstitious. The Spanish Inquisition, already established as a bloodthirsty tool of religious persecution, was derided by Enlightenment thinkers as a brutal weapon of intolerance and ignorance. A new, fictional Spanish Inquisition had been constructed, designed by the enemies of Spain and the Catholic Church.
Now a bit more of the real Inquisition has come back into view. The question remains, will anyone take notice?
From Catholic Answers website.
Sooner or later, any discussion of apologetics with Fundamentalists
will address the Inquisition. To non-Catholics it is a scandal; to
Catholics, an embarrassment; to both, a confusion. It is a handy stick
for Catholic-bashing, simply because most Catholics seem at a loss for a
sensible reply. This tract will set the record straight.
There have actually been several different inquisitions. The first
was established in 1184 in southern France as a response to the
Catharist heresy. This was known as the Medieval Inquisition, and it was
phased out as Catharism disappeared.
Quite separate was the Roman Inquisition, begun in 1542. It was the least active and most benign of the three variations.
Separate again was the infamous Spanish Inquisition, started in 1478, a state institution used to identify conversos—Jews
and Moors (Muslims) who pretended to convert to Christianity for
purposes of political or social advantage and secretly practiced their
former religion. More importantly, its job was also to clear the good
names of many people who were falsely accused of being heretics. It was
the Spanish Inquisition that, at least in the popular imagination, had
the worst record of fulfilling these duties.
The various inquisitions stretched through the better part of a millennia, and can collectively be called "the Inquisition."
The Main Sources
Fundamentalists writing about the Inquisition rely on books by Henry
C. Lea (1825–1909) and G. G. Coulton (1858–1947). Each man got most of
the facts right, and each made progress in basic research, so proper
credit should not be denied them. The problem is that they did not weigh
facts well, because they harbored fierce animosity toward the
Church—animosity that had little to do with the Inquisition itself.
The contrary problem has not been unknown. A few Catholic writers,
particularly those less interested in digging for truth than in
diffusing a criticism of the Church, have glossed over incontrovertible
facts and tried to whitewash the Inquisition. This is as much a
disservice to the truth as an exaggeration of the Inquisition’s bad
points. These well-intentioned, but misguided, apologists are, in one
respect, much like Lea, Coulton, and contemporary Fundamentalist
writers. They fear, while the others hope, that the facts about the
Inquisition might prove the illegitimacy of the Catholic Church.
Don’t Fear the Facts
But the facts fail to do that. The Church has nothing to fear from
the truth. No account of foolishness, misguided zeal, or cruelty by
Catholics can undo the divine foundation of the Church, though,
admittedly, these things are stumbling blocks to Catholics and
What must be grasped is that the Church contains within itself all
sorts of sinners and knaves, and some of them obtain positions of
responsibility. Paul and Christ himself warned us that there would be a
few ravenous wolves among Church leaders (Acts 20:29; Matt. 7:15).
Fundamentalists suffer from the mistaken notion that the Church
includes only the elect. For them, sinners are outside the doors. Locate
sinners, and you locate another place where the Church is not.
Thinking that Fundamentalists might have a point in their attacks on
the Inquisition, Catholics tend to be defensive. This is the wrong
attitude; rather, we should learn what really happened, understand
events in light of the times, and then explain to anti-Catholics why the
sorry tale does not prove what they think it proves.
Many Fundamentalists believe, for instance, that more people died
under the Inquisition than in any war or plague; but in this they rely
on phony "statistics" generated by one-upmanship among anti-Catholics,
each of whom, it seems, tries to come up with the largest number of
But trying to straighten out such historical confusions can take one
only so far. As Ronald Knox put it, we should be cautious, "lest we
should wander interminably in a wilderness of comparative atrocity
statistics." In fact, no one knows exactly how many people perished
through the various Inquisitions. We can determine for certain, though,
one thing about numbers given by Fundamentalists: They are far too
large. One book popular with Fundamentalists claims that 95 million
people died under the Inquisition.
The figure is so grotesquely off that one immediately doubts the
writer’s sanity, or at least his g.asp of demographics. Not until modern
times did the population of those countries where the Inquisitions
existed approach 95 million.
Inquisitions did not exist in Northern Europe, Eastern Europe,
Scandinavia, or England, being confined mainly to southern France,
Italy, Spain, and a few parts of the Holy Roman Empire. The Inquisition
could not have killed that many people because those parts of Europe did
not have that many people to kill!
Furthermore, the plague, which killed a third of Europe’s population,
is credited by historians with major changes in the social structure.
The Inquisition is credited with few—precisely because the number of its
victims was comparitively small. In fact, recent studies indicate that
at most there were only a few thousand capital sentences carried out for
heresy in Spain, and these were over the course of several centuries.
What’s the Point?
Ultimately, it may be a waste of time arguing about statistics.
Instead, ask Fundamentalists just what they think the existence of the
Inquisition demonstrates. They would not bring it up in the first place
unless they thought it proves something about the Catholic Church. And
what is that something? That Catholics are sinners? Guilty as charged.
That at times people in positions of authority have used poor judgment?
Ditto. That otherwise good Catholics, afire with zeal, sometimes lose
their balance? All true, but such charges could be made even if the
Inquisition had never existed and perhaps could be made of some
Fundamentalist writers claim the existence of the Inquisition proves
the Catholic Church could not be the Church founded by our Lord. They
use the Inquisition as a good—perhaps their best—bad example. They think
this shows that the Catholic Church is illegitimate. At first blush it
might seem so, but there is only so much mileage in a ploy like that;
most people see at once that the argument is weak. One reason
Fundamentalists talk about the Inquisition is that they take it as a
personal attack, imagining it was established to eliminate (yes, you
guessed it) the Fundamentalists themselves.
Not "Bible Christians"
They identify themselves with the Catharists (also known as the
Albigensians), or perhaps it is better to say they identify the
Catharists with themselves. They think the Catharists were
twelfth-century Fundamentalists and that Catholics did to them what they
would do to Fundamentalists today if they had the political strength
they once had.
This is a fantasy. Fundamentalist writers take one point—that
Catharists used a vernacular version of the Bible—and conclude from it
that these people were "Bible Christians." In fact, theirs was a curious
religion that apparently (no one knows for certain) came to France from
what is now Bulgaria. Catharism was a blend of Gnosticism, which
claimed to have access to a secret source of religious knowledge, and of
Manichaeism, which said matter is evil. The Catharists believed in two
gods: the "good" God of the New Testament, who sent Jesus to save our
souls from being trapped in matter; and the "evil" God of the Old
Testament, who created the material world in the first place. The
Catharists’ beliefs entailed serious—truly
Marriage was scorned because it legitimized sexual relations, which
Catharists identified as the Original Sin. But fornication was permitted
because it was temporary, secret, and was not generally approved of;
while marriage was permanent, open, and publicly sanctioned.
The ramifications of such theories are not hard to imagine. In
addition, ritualistic suicide was encouraged (those who would not take
their own lives were frequently "helped" along), and Catharists refused
to take oaths, which, in a feudal society, meant they opposed all
governmental authority. Thus, Catharism was both a moral and a political
Even Lea, so strongly opposed to the Catholic Church, admitted: "The
cause of orthodoxy was the cause of progress and civilization. Had
Catharism become dominant, or even had it been allowed to exist on equal
terms, its influence could not have failed to become disastrous."
Whatever else might be said about Catharism, it was certainly not the
same as modern Fundamentalism, and Fundamentalist sympathy for this
destructive belief system is sadly misplaced.
The Real Point
Many discussions about the Inquisition get bogged down in numbers and
many Catholics fail to understand what Fundamentalists are really
driving at. As a result, Catholics restrict themselves to secondary
matters. Instead, they should force the Fundamentalists to say
explicitly what they are trying to prove.
However, there is a certain utility—though a decidedly limited one—in
demonstrating that the kinds and degrees of punishments inflicted by
the Spanish Inquisition were similar to (actually, even lighter than)
those meted out by secular courts. It is equally true that, despite what
we consider the Spanish Inquisition’s lamentable procedures, many
people preferred to have their cases tried by ecclesiastical courts
because the secular courts had even fewer safeguards. In fact,
historians have found records of people b.aspheming in secular courts of
the period so they could have their case transferred to an
ecclesiastical court, where they would get a better hearing.
The crucial thing for Catholics, once they have obtained some
appreciation of the history of the Inquisition, is to explain how such
an institution could have been associated with a divinely established
Church and why it is not proper to conclude, from the existence of the
Inquisition, that the Catholic Church is not the Church of Christ. This
is the real point at issue, and this is where any discussion should
To that end, it is helpful to point out that it is easy to see how
those who led the Inquisitions could think their actions were justified.
The Bible itself records instances where God commanded that formal,
legal inquiries—that is, inquisitions—be carried out to expose secret
believers in false religions. In Deuteronomy 17:2–5 God said: "If there
is found among you, within any of your towns which the Lord your God
gives you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord
your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other
gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of
heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it;
then you shall inquire diligently [note that phrase: "inquire
diligently"], and if it is true and certain that such an abominable
thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring forth to your gates
that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that
man or woman to death with stones."
It is clear that there were some Israelites who posed as believers in
and keepers of the covenant with Yahweh, while inwardly they did not
believe and secretly practiced false religions, and even tried to spread
them (cf. Deut. 13:6–11). To protect the kingdom from such hidden
heresy, these secret practitioners of false religions had to be rooted
out and expelled from the community. This directive from the Lord
applied even to whole cities that turned away from the true religion
(Deut. 13:12–18). Like Israel, medieval Europe was a society of
Christian kingdoms that were formally consecrated to the Lord Jesus
Christ. It is therefore quite understandable that these Catholics would
read their Bibles and conclude that for the good of their Christian
society they, like the Israelites before them, "must purge the evil from
the midst of you" (Deut. 13:5, 17:7, 12). Paul repeats this principle
in 1 Corinthians 5:13.
These same texts were interpreted similarly by the first Protestants,
who also tried to root out and punish those they regarded as heretics.
Luther and Calvin both endorsed the right of the state to protect
society by purging false religion. In fact, Calvin not only banished
from Geneva those who did not share his views, he permitted and in some
cases ordered others to be executed for "heresy" (e.g. Jacques Gouet,
tortured and beheaded in 1547; and Michael Servetus, burned at the stake
in 1553). In England and Ireland, Reformers engaged in their own
ruthless inquisitions and executions. Conservative estimates indicate
that thousands of English and Irish Catholics were put to death—many by
being hanged, drawn, and quartered—for practicing the Catholic faith and
refusing to become Protestant. An even greater number were forced to
flee to the Continent for their safety. We point this out to show that
the situation was a two-way street; and both sides easily understood the
Bible to require the use of penal sanctions to root out false religion
from Christian society.
The fact that the Protestant Reformers also created inquisitions to
root out Catholics and others who did not fall into line with the
doctrines of the local Protestant sect shows that the existence of an
inquisition does not prove that a movement is not of God. Protestants
cannot make this claim against Catholics without having it backfire on
themselves. Neither can Catholics make such a charge against
Protestants. The truth of a particular system of belief must be decided
on other grounds.
A note on the pattern of the fall of empires, by the Arab philosopher of history from the 1300's, Ibn Khaldun, with a certain level of applicability to Western Europe and to a lesser degree North America.
Ibn Khaldūn or Ibn Khaldoun (full name, Arabic: ابو زيد عبد الرحمن بن محمد بن خلدون الحضرمي, Abū Zayd ‘Abdu r-Raḥman bin Muḥammad bin Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī) (May 27, 1332 AD/732 AH – March 19, 1406 AD/808 AH), was a famous Arab Muslim polymath: a historian, historiographer, demographer, economist, philosopher, sociologist and social scientist born in present-day Tunisia. He is considered the father of demography, cultural history, historiography, the philosophy of history, sociology, and the social sciences, and is viewed as one of the forerunners of modern economics. He is best known for his Muqaddimah (Latinized as Prolegomenon) (from Wikipedia)
Ibn Khaldun studied the history leading up to his time, which was a time of Muslim domination of vast areas of the world, and gave an interpretation of history in its cycles of empire growth, maturity and decline. He sees the following successive phases in every empire:
1) A victorious people settles down after victory to enjoy its new conquest, whether new lands they have expanded into, or a new regime that has taken over the existing land.
2) They grow in complexity of social relations and authority is concentrated and institutionalized to maintain order.
3) With order comes growth in wealth and education. Science, philosophy and arts grow. Cities grow as rural life diminishes. Urbanization and widespread comfort mark the beginnings of decay.
4) The enriched society comes to love pleasure, luxury, and ease, over work, risk, and martial strength. Religion weakens, morals become confused and deteriorates, pederasty and homosexualaity and other abnormal practices grow. Foreigners are brought in and used for the work. These lack natural patriotism to assist and defend the ideals of the society that are now nebulous and weakened.
5) The troubled society invites conquest, whether from without, or by revolution or intrigue from within. The cycle begins again at phase one.
Ibn Khaldun says that "it is always so." Do any similarities to current or past regimes strike you at salient?
This is a column from Theodore Dalrymple, an athiest author, in which he makes several points about how weak the latest spate of anti-religion books are, how childish the arguements, and what the problems he sees with them are. While there are serious arguements pro and con the existence of a Supreme Being, these latest round of books appear to have little knowledge of the history of these arguements.
What the New Atheists Don’t See
To regret religion is to regret Western civilization.
The British parliament’s first avowedly atheist member, Charles Bradlaugh, would stride into public meetings in the 1880s, take out his pocket watch, and challenge God to strike him dead in 60 seconds. God bided his time, but got Bradlaugh in the end. A slightly later atheist, Bertrand Russell, was once asked what he would do if it proved that he was mistaken and if he met his maker in the hereafter. He would demand to know, Russell replied with all the high-pitched fervor of his pedantry, why God had not made the evidence of his existence plainer and more irrefutable. And Jean-Paul Sartre came up with a memorable line: “God doesn’t exist—the bastard!”
Sartre’s wonderful outburst of disappointed rage suggests that it is not as easy as one might suppose to rid oneself of the notion of God. (Perhaps this is the time to declare that I am not myself a believer.) At the very least, Sartre’s line implies that God’s existence would solve some kind of problem—actually, a profound one: the transcendent purpose of human existence. Few of us, especially as we grow older, are entirely comfortable with the idea that life is full of sound and fury but signi-fies nothing. However much philosophers tell us that it is illogical to fear death, and that at worst it is only the process of dying that we should fear, people still fear death as much as ever. In like fashion, however many times philosophers say that it is up to us ourselves, and to no one else, to find the meaning of life, we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills. To tell us that we should not feel this longing is a bit like telling someone in the first flush of love that the object of his affections is not worthy of them. The heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.
Of course, men—that is to say, some men—have denied this truth ever since the Enlightenment, and have sought to find a way of life based entirely on reason. Far as I am from decrying reason, the attempt leads at best to Gradgrind and at worst to Stalin. Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man’s mental or moral economy.
The search for the pure guiding light of reason, uncontaminated by human passion or metaphysical principles that go beyond all possible evidence, continues, however; and recently, an epidemic rash of books has declared success, at least if success consists of having slain the inveterate enemy of reason, namely religion. The philosophers Daniel Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Michel Onfray, and Sam Harris, biologist Richard Dawkins, and journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens have all written books roundly condemning religion and its works. Evidently, there is a tide in the affairs, if not of men, at least of authors.
The curious thing about these books is that the authors often appear to think that they are saying something new and brave. They imagine themselves to be like the intrepid explorer Sir Richard Burton, who in 1853 disguised himself as a Muslim merchant, went to Mecca, and then wrote a book about his unprecedented feat. The public appears to agree, for the neo-atheist books have sold by the hundred thousand. Yet with the possible exception of Dennett’s, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of 14 (Saint Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence gave me the greatest difficulty, but I had taken Hume to heart on the weakness of the argument from design).
I first doubted God’s existence at about the age of nine. It was at the school assembly that I lost my faith. We had been given to understand that if we opened our eyes during prayers God would depart the assembly hall. I wanted to test this hypothesis. Surely, if I opened my eyes suddenly, I would glimpse the fleeing God? What I saw instead, it turned out, was the headmaster, Mr. Clinton, intoning the prayer with one eye closed and the other open, with which he beadily surveyed the children below for transgressions. I quickly concluded that Mr. Clinton did not believe what he said about the need to keep our eyes shut. And if he did not believe that, why should I believe in his God? In such illogical leaps do our beliefs often originate, to be disciplined later in life (if we receive enough education) by elaborate rationalization.
Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is the least bad-tempered of the new atheist books, but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. Dennett argues that religion is explicable in evolutionary terms—for example, by our inborn human propensity, at one time valuable for our survival on the African savannahs, to attribute animate agency to threatening events.
For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.
One striking aspect of Dennett’s book is his failure to avoid the language of purpose, intention, and ontological moral evaluation, despite his fierce opposition to teleological views of existence: the coyote’s “methods of locomotion have been ruthlessly optimized for efficiency.” Or: “The stinginess of Nature can be seen everywhere we look.” Or again: “This is a good example of Mother Nature’s stinginess in the final accounting combined with absurd profligacy in the methods.” I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. (And Dennett is not alone in this difficulty: Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto, so rich in errors and inexactitudes that it would take a book as long as his to correct them, says on its second page that religion prevents mankind from facing up to “reality in all its naked cruelty.” But how can reality have any moral quality without having an immanent or transcendent purpose?)
No doubt Dennett would reply that he is writing in metaphors for the layman and that he could translate all his statements into a language without either moral evaluation or purpose included in it. Perhaps he would argue that his language is evidence that the spell still has a hold over even him, the breaker of the spell for the rest of humanity. But I am not sure that this response would be psychologically accurate. I think Dennett’s use of the language of evaluation and purpose is evidence of a deep-seated metaphysical belief (however caused) that Providence exists in the universe, a belief that few people, confronted by the mystery of beauty and of existence itself, escape entirely. At any rate, it ill behooves Dennett to condescend to those poor primitives who still have a religious or providential view of the world: a view that, at base, is no more refutable than Dennett’s metaphysical faith in evolution.
Dennett is not the only new atheist to employ religious language. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes with approval a new set of Ten Commandments for atheists, which he obtained from an atheist website, without considering odd the idea that atheists require commandments at all, let alone precisely ten of them; nor does their metaphysical status seem to worry him. The last of the atheist’s Ten Commandments ends with the following: “Question everything.” Everything? Including the need to question everything, and so on ad infinitum?
Not to belabor the point, but if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove. Metaphysics is like nature: though you throw it out with a pitchfork, yet it always returns. What is confounded here is surely the abstract right to question everything with the actual exercise of that right on all possible occasions. Anyone who did exercise his right on all possible occasions would wind up a short-lived fool.
This sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and intolerance, reach an apogee in Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. It is not easy to do justice to the book’s nastiness; it makes Dawkins’s claim that religious education constitutes child abuse look sane and moderate.
Harris tells us, for example, that “we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.” I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.
It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.”
Let us leave aside the metaphysical problems that these three sentences raise. For Harris, the most important question about genocide would seem to be: “Who is genociding whom?” To adapt Dostoyevsky slightly, starting from universal reason, I arrive at universal madness.
Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: “Religion spoils everything.”
What? The Saint Matthew Passion? The Cathedral of Chartres? The emblematic religious person in these books seems to be a Glasgow Airport bomber—a type unrepresentative of Muslims, let alone communicants of the poor old Church of England. It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.
In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.
The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.
A few years back, the National Gallery held an exhibition of Spanish still-life paintings. One of these paintings had a physical effect on the people who sauntered in, stopping them in their tracks; some even gasped. I have never seen an image have such an impact on people. The painting, by Juan Sánchez Cotán, now hangs in the San Diego Museum of Art. It showed four fruits and vegetables, two suspended by string, forming a parabola in a gray stone window.
Even if you did not know that Sánchez Cotán was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us. Once you have seen it, and concentrated your attention on it, you will never take the existence of the humble cabbage—or of anything else—quite so much for granted, but will see its beauty and be thankful for it. The painting is a permanent call to contemplation of the meaning of human life, and as such it arrested people who ordinarily were not, I suspect, much given to quiet contemplation.
The same holds true with the work of the great Dutch still-life painters. On the neo-atheist view, the religious connection between Catholic Spain and Protestant Holland is one of conflict, war, and massacre only: and certainly one cannot deny this history. And yet something more exists. As with Sánchez Cotán, only a deep reverence, an ability not to take existence for granted, could turn a representation of a herring on a pewter plate into an object of transcendent beauty, worthy of serious reflection.
I recently had occasion to compare the writings of the neo-atheists with those of Anglican divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I was visiting some friends at their country house in England, which had a library of old volumes; since the family of the previous owners had a churchman in every generation, many of the books were religious. In my own neo-atheist days, I would have scorned these works as pertaining to a nonexistent entity and containing nothing of value. I would have considered the authors deluded men, who probably sought to delude others for reasons that Marx might have enumerated.
But looking, say, into the works of Joseph Hall, D.D., I found myself moved: much more moved, it goes without saying, than by any of the books of the new atheists. Hall was bishop of Exeter and then of Norwich; though a moderate Puritan, he took the Royalist side in the English civil war and lost his see, dying in 1656 while Cromwell was still Lord Protector.
Except by specialists, Hall remains almost entirely forgotten today. I opened one of the volumes at random, his Contemplations Upon the Principal Passages of the Holy Story. Here was the contemplation on the sickness of Hezekiah:
Hezekiah was freed from the siege of the Assyrians, but he is surprised with a disease. He, that delivered him from the hand of his enemies, smites him with sickness. God doth not let us loose from all afflictions, when he redeems us from one.
To think that Hezekiah was either not thankful enough for his deliverance, or too much lifted up with the glory of so miraculous a favour, were an injurious misconstruction of the hand of God, and an uncharitable censure of a holy prince; for, though no flesh and blood can avoid the just desert of bodily punishment, yet God doth not always strike with an intuition of sin: sometimes he regards the benefit of our trial; sometimes, the glory of his mercy in our cure.
Hall surely means us to infer that whatever happens to us, however unpleasant, has a meaning and purpose; and this enables us to bear our sorrows with greater dignity and less suffering. And it is part of the existential reality of human life that we shall always need consolation, no matter what progress we make. Hall continues:
When, as yet, he had not so much as the comfort of a child to succeed him, thy prophet is sent to him, with the heavy message of his death: “Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live.” It is no small mercy of God, that he gives us warning of our end. . . . No soul can want important affairs, to be ordered for a final dissolution.
This is the language not of rights and entitlements, but of something much deeper—a universal respect for the condition of being human.
For Hall, life is instinct with meaning: a meaning capable of controlling man’s pride at his good fortune and consoling him for his ill fortune. Here is an extract from Hall’s Characters of Virtues and Vices:
He is an happy man, that hath learned to read himself, more than all books; and hath so taken out this lesson, that he can never forget it: that knows the world, and cares not for it; that, after many traverses of thoughts, is grown to know what he may trust to; and stands now equally armed for all events: that hath got the mastery at home; so as he can cross his will without a mutiny, and so please it that he makes it not a wanton: that, in earthly things, wishes no more than nature; in spiritual, is ever graciously ambitious: that, for his condition, stands on his own feet, not needing to lean upon the great; and can so frame his thoughts to his estate, that when he hath least, he cannot want, because he is as free from desire, as superfluity: that hath seasonably broken the headstrong restiness of prosperity; and can now manage it, at pleasure: upon whom, all smaller crosses light as hailstones upon a roof; and, for the greater calamities, he can take them as tributes of life and tokens of love; and, if his ship be tossed, yet he is sure his anchor is fast. If all the world were his, he could be no other than he is; no whit gladder of himself, no whit higher in his carriage; because he knows, that contentment lies not in the things he hath, but in the mind that values them.
Though eloquent, this appeal to moderation as the key to happiness is not original; but such moderation comes more naturally to the man who believes in something not merely higher than himself, but higher than mankind. After all, the greatest enjoyment of the usages of this world, even to excess, might seem rational when the usages of this world are all that there is.
In his Occasional Meditations, Hall takes perfectly ordinary scenes—ordinary, of course, for his times—and derives meaning from them. Here is his meditation “Upon the Flies Gathering to a Galled Horse”:
How these flies swarm to the galled part of this poor beast; and there sit, feeding upon that worst piece of his flesh, not meddling with the other sound parts of his skin! Even thus do malicious tongues of detractors: if a man have any infirmity in his person or actions, that they will be sure to gather unto, and dwell upon; whereas, his commendable parts and well-deservings are passed by, without mention, without regard. It is an envious self-love and base cruelty, that causeth this ill disposition in men: in the mean time, this only they have gained; it must needs be a filthy creature, that feeds upon nothing but corruption.
Surely Hall is not suggesting (unlike Dennett in his unguarded moments) that the biological purpose of flies is to feed off injured horses, but rather that a sight in nature can be the occasion for us to reflect imaginatively on our morality. He is not raising a biological theory about flies, in contradistinction to the theory of evolution, but thinking morally about human existence. It is true that he would say that everything is part of God’s providence, but, again, this is no more (and no less) a metaphysical belief than the belief in natural selection as an all-explanatory principle.
Let us compare Hall’s meditation “Upon the Sight of a Harlot Carted” with Harris’s statement that some people ought perhaps to be killed for their beliefs:
With what noise, and tumult, and zeal of solemn justice, is this sin punished! The streets are not more full of beholders, than clamours. Every one strives to express his detestation of the fact, by some token of revenge: one casts mire, another water, another rotten eggs, upon the miserable offender. Neither, indeed, is she worthy of less: but, in the mean time, no man looks home to himself. It is no uncharity to say, that too many insult in this just punishment, who have deserved more. . . . Public sins have more shame; private may have more guilt. If the world cannot charge me of those, it is enough, that I can charge my soul of worse. Let others rejoice, in these public executions: let me pity the sins of others, and be humbled under the sense of my own.
Who sounds more charitable, more generous, more just, more profound, more honest, more humane: Sam Harris or Joseph Hall, D.D., late lord bishop of Exeter and of Norwich?
No doubt it helps that Hall lived at a time of sonorous prose, prose that merely because of its sonority resonates in our souls; prose of the kind that none of us, because of the time in which we live, could ever equal. But the style applies to the thought as well as the prose; and I prefer Hall’s charity to Harris’s intolerance.
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
ROME, SEPT. 24, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of a commentary written by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, in response to an essay on religion and evolution written by Christopher Hitchens.
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CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS AND THE END OF EVOLUTION
A few weeks ago an anonymous benefactor saw to it that I received a free Italian edition of an essay by the Anglo-American journalist Christopher Hitchens, titled "God Is Not Great," subtitled "How Religion Poisons Everything" (Giulio Einaudi, Turin/New York 2007).
I'm quite sure his aim was not to provoke me, but to help me out of the deception I find myself in as a believer and as a TV commentator on the Gospel.
Let me say at once that I'm grateful to my unknown friend. Many of the author's reproaches against believers of all religions -- the book treats Islam no better than Christianity, which shows considerable courage on the part of the author -- are well founded, and must be taken seriously so that the same errors of the past are not repeated in the future. The Second Vatican Council states that the Christian faith can and should benefit even from the criticisms of its attackers, and this is certainly one of those cases.
But Hitchens, in my view, makes a mountain out of every molehill. He claims to follow the Gospel principle of judging the tree by its fruits, but as for the tree of religion, he only considers the rotten fruits, never the good ones. The saints, the geniuses and benefactors given to humanity by the faith or nourished by it, count for nothing.
Using the same principles -- I mean, by considering only the dark side of an institution -- one could write a "black book" about any of the great human realities: the family; medicine (just think what it was used for at Auschwitz); politics and science, and about the author's own profession, journalism (how many times has it been, and still is, in the service of tyrants and serving the interests of powerful groups!).
No one is exempt from his criticisms. Francis of Assisi? "A mammal who was said to have preached to birds!"
Mother Teresa of Calcutta? "An ambitious Albanian nun" made famous by the book "Something Beautiful for God," written about her by Malcolm Muggeridge. In other words, Mother Teresa is just one of many products of the media age!
Pascal concludes his account of his discovery of the living God with the words: "Joy, joy, tears of joy." And C.S. Lewis describes his conversion as being "surprised by joy," but for Hitchens "there is something dreary and absurd" in these two authors, as in all believers: a fundamental absence of happiness. ("Why does such a belief not make its adherents happy?")
Dostoyevsky is one of the main witnesses for religion, but the arguments put into the mouth of the rebel atheist Ivan are given more attention than those of the pious Alysosha who, as is well known, reflects much more closely the thought of the author himself.
Tertullian becomes a "church father" so that his "credo quia absurdum" -- I believe because it is absurd -- can be interpreted as the thought of Christianity as a whole, whereas it is well known that when he wrote these words (here interpreted outside of their proper context and in an inexact way) the Church considered Tertullian a heretic.
Strange that the author should criticize Tertullian, because if there is one apologist he resembles, like a reversed reflection in a mirror, it is precisely the African: The same energetic style, the same will to triumph over his adversary by burying him under a mass of apparently -- but only apparently -- insuperable arguments: quantity replacing quality of argument.
An English reviewer (J. Cornwell of The Tablet) has compared the author of this book to "a tired old prizefighter throwing weary punches at an inert punching-bag while the true champ he'd like to duff up is absent from the gym."
He does not demolish the true faith, but a caricature of it. Reading the book, I was reminded of the sport of clay pigeon shooting: The ready-made targets are hurled into the air, and the marksman, aiming his shots with fine precision, blasts them to bits effortlessly.
Hitchens attacks the various religious fundamentalisms with an opposite kind of fundamentalism. In the Italian secular newspaper La Repubblica, Renzo Guolo wrote: "Hitchens' work looks like the militant manifesto of a world that appears polarized between the disturbing champions of fundamentalism, with their crazy projects for new, totalitarian ethical states, and the supporters of an integral neo-secularism which undervalues the search for meaning on which many are engaged in this age of the 'end of the narratives.'"
Hitchens shows signs of another kind of fundamentalism too: Although with the opposite intention, he reads Scripture, especially the Old Testament, in exactly the same way as certain biblical fundamentalists of the American evangelical variety -- literally, without any effort to contextualize or interpret the text historically. This enables him to speak of "the nightmare of the New Testament."
But Christopher Hitchens is an intelligent man. He foresees that religion will survive even his attack, just as it has survived countless others before it, and he goes to the trouble of providing an explanation for this embarrassing fact.
"Religious faith," he writes, "precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, is ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other."
Religion is only a provisional, intermediate state, connected with the situation of man as "an evolving being." Thus the author tacitly assumes the role of one who has single-handedly broken through this barrier, anticipating the end of evolution and "returning" to earth, like Nietzsche's Zarathustra, to enlighten poor mortals about the way things really are.
I repeat: One cannot fail to acknowledge the author's extraordinary erudition and the relevance of some of his criticisms. The pity is, by trying to win the argument hands down, he fails to convince.
This is a blog post from John Farral at www.farrelmedia.com, who is someone I do not
know, and he seems a bit blustery, but he lays out on why many Intelligent Design advocates do not "get it". Although he does not make scientific arguments in the blog, he represents the view that is fed up with conservatives claiming you cannot be honest and hold some darwinistic thoeries.
A Problem of Credibility
The problem with relying solely on philosophy when it comes to discussing the 'big picture' about God and his role in the evolution of life, is that it too often gives cover to scientific stupidity.
I would much rather say ignorance instead of stupidity, believe me. But ignorance is a condition that can be remedied, assuming the ignorant party is interested in learning the truth. That is not the case with many conservatives and the journalists who pander to them.
In terms of science reporting and opinion, Tom Bethell is one example of an obdurately stupid journalist. As is Pat Buchanan. As is Ann Coulter. Note the journals they write for--they are magazines I used to find stimulating in college and afterwards. National Review, the American Spectator, for example.
Now, I could pick on any one of these aging heavyweights, but for purposes of economy--and because he so regularly supplies ample ammunition, I'll confine myself to Tom Bethell as an example of what I mean.
At the outset, I should point out that the most overtly religious of the conservative magazines today, First Things, I have to say is also the most open about science qua science. Yes, they do publish the usual swill from the Discovery Institute fellows, but they also allow Edward T. Oakes, my favorite Jesuit, to neatly deconstruct them whenever they do. But perhaps FT's true openness to both sides of the argument isn't ironic, for the very reason that the editors take their religion with all of its tradition and history more seriously than the those of the other magazines. (So there. I'm not burning any bridges with them.)
That's not to say FT always gets it right. For example, in an otherwise thoughtful piece, Cardinal Avery Dulles can't resist giving a crumb of credibility to Intelligent Design as one of three plausible reactions to what evolution tells us about the world, in spite of the fact that ID is a movement now so bankrupt in its lack of any scientific content, that it has become an embarrassment to Christians who are practicing scientists and philosophers. (Even Young Earth Creationists have had enough of the Discovery Institute's posturing.)
I'm not blaming the Cardinal, except to the extent that I think leaders of the Church are too careful sometimes, too cautious, in their weighing of urgent questions. Pope Benedict's recent assertion that the whole creationism v. evolution debate is "absurd" would have been more welcome, say, two years ago when Cardinal Schönborn signed his name to an ill-conceived attack on Darwin in the New York Times. Instead, the pope was content to wait until after the cautious, quiet seminars he felt he had to sit through before making up his mind. But at least he invited scientists to make their case--which is more than our mainstream conservative magazines do.
Another part of the problem--at least with regard to conservative journalists and how they cover science--is the narrow provincialism, born of the small social circle of people who make up the current conservative intellectual establishment, meaning, in the corridor between New York and Washington, D.C. [I'm a Red Sox fan, so shoot me.]
A friend of mine, who is also a longtime reader of National Review and the other conservative opinion journals, had some interesting comments about this a while back in an email, and I think he's right on the money: "The problem with NRO is that it's intellectually incurious. It's gotten to be dull and airless because it's not really interested in exploring new ideas and rethinking old ones in light of experience, but instead serving as a political rallying point. There is so much more to conservatism -- or to be more precise, what interests, or should interest, conservatives -- than what happens in Washington, but that's all they seem to care about."
Thus when Tom Bethell repeats his inaccurate cliches about Darwin's Theory (survival of the fittest is a tautology, dontcha know), he relies on Michael Behe and William Dembski to 'make his case'. Well, that's fine. What he does not do, however, is bother to look up any other working biologists or mathematicians who might broaden and challenge his sense of exactly what is going on (or more accurately--what is not going on) with ID.
For example, he might have ventured to query some Christians who are scientists and philosophers, ones who are not scared of Darwin. To name just a few:
Michael W. Tkacz
But talking to anyone who might politely disprove the point is just not part of what Bethell, Gilder, Buchanan, Coulter & Co. are up to. Which is the main reason why conservative journalists have ZERO credibility with a wider educated readership when it comes to science.
There's nothing wrong, by the way, with attacking Darwinism as it is hyped as a philosophy. Bethell is certainly right that Darwin's theory is often used as a philosophy, and a tawdry one. He might also have noticed, though, that the people who most often espouse the philosophy are not the ones doing the science. And there is plenty of science behind Darwin. Bethell is just not interested in finding out what it is, in spite of his breathless proclamations of the imminent death of Darwin going on for... thirty-plus years now. (A statement like that sort of assumes that you know what the hell you're talking about.)
If he took the time to interview, for example, this man, he would learn a few recent facts that the study of Darwin's theory has inspired. James Matheson, by the way, is precisely the sort of young Christian that Bethell loves to tout as the future student who will supposedly dispense with Darwin's theory.
Far from dispensing with Darwin, lots of scientists like Matheson are running with him, and building even more impressive evidence for his theory.
Common ancestry in plants, for example.
Then there's Chromosome 2, the most dazzling evidence to date, in my opinion, of our direct connection to primates--all genetic evidence of Darwin's theory of descent with modification by genetic variation and natural selection, that supports the fossil record. But Bethell & Co. (if they are even aware of this) prefer to continue ranting about peppered moths. Pat Buchanan apparently thinks nothing has been discovered in the fossil record in the last 50 years. But then, Pat's still a 1950s kind of guy all around. ("I don't believe all that...I never studied it in high school.")
What I would like Bethell, Buchanan, Gilder, and the other blow-hards of what passes for conservative 'science journalism' to explain, as carefully as they can, is how any sense can be made of modern biology apart from Darwin's theory? Even Michael Behe might admit that would be a tall order. But Bethell has shown that he is uninterested in speaking with anyone working in the discipline today. Why should he? It's far easier to quote-mine--out of context--long dead or retired scientists who don't even work in the field.
Speaking of Behe, when asked to explain once what he meant by the 'designer' and how "irreducibly complex" elements actually got inserted into bacterial systems wholesale, he famously told Larry Arnhart it was 'a puff of smoke'.
Waal, who would you rather have teaching your children science? Michael Behe, or James Matheson? William Dembski, or Jeffrey Shalit? Jonathan Wells, or Kenneth Miller? For that matter, how about the nuns at Saint Agatha's who way back in 1969 introduced this reader to the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs and the How and Why Wonder Book of Early Man? And I don't recall Sister Helen Bernard telling me, 'By the way, Johnny, evolution is just a theory, you know.'
But as far as the current generation of gadflies posting 'science' articles to National Review and the American Spectator are concerned, if the philosophy suggested by science is intimidating or disturbing...well--by all means then, out with the baby along with the bathwater. Let's raise a generation of scientific illiterates so that they will have even fewer options to prosper in the challenging world of the future.
While I'm at it, newtonian physics, which Bethell presumably does not dispute, also bred a questionable philosophy (deism), as did Einstein's relativity (moral relativism) and quantum mechanics (don't ask, there are too many isms to list). They all fail to satisfy as philosophies in my opinion, but that doesn't mean there is no science from which they took flight. (Predictably, it hasn't prevented Bethell from making a further fool of himself by attacking Einstein in the past, although lately he has modified his reliance on pure crackpot sources when it comes to that theory, at least. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.)
There's a deeper issue here, of course. It's the problem that many conservatives have with the very methodological basis of science--methodological naturalism. They enjoy blaming this on Darwin as well.
But it is not at all established that the old bugbear naturalism, the exclusion of supernatural explanations from scientific reasoning, is the product of Darwin and Huxley that so many conservative writers suggest. Upon closer examination, it actually goes back (at the very least) to the medieval universities--when the whole show was run by priests. In those days, atheists weren't even allowed to proclaim their skepticism, let alone teach.
Nevertheless, Jean Buridan, the cleric and philosopher of the mid 1300s whose influence on medieval science and philosophy was, for quite some time, more widespread in Europe than that of Aquinas or Albert the Great, wrote in his Quaestiones super quattuor libris de caelo et mundo, “In natural philosophy one should consider processes and causal relationships as if they always came about in some natural fashion; therefore, God is no less the cause of this world and of its order, than if this world were eternal.” [emphasis mine]
That sure sounds like methodological naturalism to me. It's also common sense. (Do you suppose when Pat Buchanan goes out to his car in the morning and finds one of the tires has gone flat he starts looking around for little gremlins?) I should add to this Aquinas' position that it is precisely a solid, stubborn, Aristotelian adherence to empirical facts about the natural order that can point beyond the natural--and not the other way around.
Okay--but isn't this all just a tempest in a teapot? Why all the bother? Why get upset because mainstream conservative magazines are so out-of-touch with science? Who cares?
Waal, as a moderate conservative, I care. And the predilection to publish boneheaded articles on science frankly suggests ...that the mainstream conservative magazines are not so mainstream anymore. When George Gilder can, because he is a veteran contributing editor of National Review, write something so utterly incoherent as this:
The failure of purely physical theories to describe or explain information reflects Shannon's concept of entropy and his measure of "news." Information is defined by its independence from physical determination: If it is determined, it is predictable and thus by definition not information. Yet Darwinian science seemed to be reducing all nature to material causes.
--and National Review's editor Rich Lowry apparently can't sit up in his office and say, "What the f%#$?" and get out his red pen, or ship it back with 'rejected', or at least send it to an expert for some comments...well, I think they're in trouble.
What a small but growing number of conservatives are concerned about, is the wholesale linking of conservatism with bogus science, whether it goes by the name of "Intelligent Design" or "Young Earth Creationism" or "Alternative Electrodynamics" or astrology for that matter (which by the way Behe also thinks passes muster as science) --and the growing discredit that this brings upon conservatism as a whole. Such a state virtually guarantees that the only new blood the movement can count on gaining in the future, is precisely derived from the credulous and the ignorant, most aptly personified by the frightened ferrets now beating the drums for the firing of this man.
Now, in fairness to National Review, perhaps the percentage of readers who are scared of Darwin is so large, the editors feel they just can't afford to educate alienate them and thus lose their subscription base and financial backing. Instead, they let John Derbyshire take the heat for being the lone voice of sanity on science. I don't know, as I don't work there.
On the other hand, I don't recall whether Bill Buckley ever fretted over lost subscriptions when he decided to unload both barrels on the John Birch Society back in the early days of NR's glory. It had to be done to maintain the magazine's credibility.
Well, it's high time for another maintenance job. Time to take an editorial stance against bogus science, no matter how much the think tanks complain.
This is a somewhat long article on Friedrich Nietzsche and his atheism, but it is worth the time and is a good read, and an article on Nietzsche that is worth anything cannot be short, an answer to the man deserves plenary treatment. He was one of very few atheists that realized the consequences of the removal of God. Most atheists these days, especially the educated and scientific ones it seems, have no clue that they are moving in and taking all their concepts and ideas of reason and will and good, and meaning, et al, from a theistic world view. When pointed out to them they deny it and refuse to see the subtle but profound difference this makes. Neitzsche saw it and accepted it. He should be respected for this, although not imitated, for his world of thought was truncated.
The author of this article is a Musliim scholar living in Turkey. He has written many books on Islam and Sufism and philosophy, and gives a fresh take from an Islamic point of view rarely referenced by Westerners.
NIETZSCHE, GOD AND DOOMSDAY: THE CONSEQUENCES OF ATHEISM, by Henry Bayman
"Reason divorced of knowledge of the divine burns into itself, like acid." — Seyyed Hossein Nasr
"Do you know what fear and loneliness mean?... You will see nothing in that expanse of eternal emptiness, you will not hear your own step, you will find nothing solid for you to rest upon." —Mephistopheles
In the Mouth of Madness
Nietzsche saw it coming. "The story I have to tell," he wrote, "is the history of the next two centuries... For a long time now our whole civilization has been driving, with a tortured intensity growing from decade to decade, as if towards a catastrophe: restlessly, violently, tempestuously, like a mighty river desiring the end of its journey, without pausing to reflect, indeed fearful of reflection... Where we live, soon nobody will be able to exist."
Nietzsche's was a mind that thought so deeply and with such intensity that it threw off sparks and crackled like a high-voltage generator. Poised on the brink of the 20th century, he saw it all in the crystal ball of his mind, and the abyss he beheld was so horrifying that he desperately tugged at the emergency brakes, vainly trying to stop the runaway train. "There will be wars," he prophesied, "such as have never been waged on earth.." And again: "I foresee something terrible, Chaos everywhere. Nothing left which is of any value; nothing which commands: Thou shalt!"
Nietzsche was no stranger to paradox and contradiction. He was simultaneously the opponent, proponent and victim of the nihilism he foresaw. His was a mind at war against his soul, a spirit locked in titanic struggle with the intellect. A student of Sufi psychology might observe that his ego—his "Me", his egotistical self—had gained control over his mind, and the latter thwarted all attempts of his spirit to elevate itself by placing before it a self-defeating intellectual obstacle around which it could find no way.
One observation, one singular realization was the motive force behind all his struggles, driving him on feverishly until his mind burned itself out trying to devise an escape. This was a formula, simply stated in three monosyllabic words, yet earth-shaking in its implications: "God is dead."
Nowadays, of course, lots of people believe in this notion without giving it a second thought. Yet the genius of Nietzsche was able to foresee all it implied, to draw most, if not indeed all, of the conclusions that would follow from its acceptance. It is for this reason that we must inspect it more closely, and in order to do this we must begin with what Nietzsche actually said.
The formula: "God is dead" appears, to be sure, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but it makes its first appearance in Section 108 of The Joyous Science (1882), written two years before Zarathustra during Nietzsche's so-called positivist period. Not only is God dead, he says, but we must banish even his shadow from the caves of our minds. There follow aphorisms extolling science and a "naturalistic" world-view. And then, suddenly, the concept appears full-blown in Section 125, under the title of "the Madman." The madman is actually Nietzsche himself, who casts the former in the image of a new Diogenes. The following extract contains the gist of it.
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"...
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns?"
The madman asks questions which imply that: we are plunging continually, backward, sideward, foreward, in all directions. There is no longer any up or down. We are straying as through an infinite nothing. We feel the breath of empty space; it has become colder. The night is continually closing in on us—we need to light lanterns in the morning. Then he continues:
"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?... Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?..."
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners... "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves."
But what does Nietzsche mean when he says: "God is dead"? In 1887, in the second edition of The Joyous Science, Nietzsche added Book Five to the original, which begins with Section 343 and the statement: "The greatest recent event—that God is dead, that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable..." As translator and eminent Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann points out: "This clause is clearly offered as an explanation of 'God is dead.'" In The Antichrist (1888), Nietzsche is more specific: "The Christian conception of God... is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God arrived at on earth..." And, when he was already close to insanity, he called himself "the Anti-Christ."
We may now pause here and think. Nietzsche obviously means that the Christian notion of God is dead, that this notion has become unbelievable. But to extrapolate from this to the assertion that God Almighty, the Lord of the universe and of all the worlds, now cannot be believed in, is as incorrect as it is dangerous.
In what way is the Christian notion of God different? Basically, it postulates a set of beliefs and makes certain attributions regarding the relationship between God and Jesus. It is these, according to Nietzsche, that set the Christian concept of God apart from other forms of monotheism...
Christian scholars and churchmen are still working on this point. But meanwhile, belief in God cannot wait, for this is the linchpin on which all our moral actions are based. Nietzsche saw clearly that morality without religion is impossible: "All purely moral demands without their religious basis must needs end in nihilism." Moral systems created by man without reference to God are actually unconscious regressions to religious morality. With the demise of faith, furthermore, not only morality but the universe of meanings begins to collapse, and since man cannot live without meaning, he tries to resurrect meaning under different headings. Richard Wilhelm once equated the Chinese concept of Tao with the German word Sinn, or meaning, and in the same way we may say that God is the meaning, the esprit (both the spirit and the meaning) of the universe. In order to believe in God and practice moral behavior, we cannot wait for the resolution of fine theological points.
Yet we must also recognize that Nietzsche's rejection of God goes deeper—starting from "a critique of the Christian conception of God," he generalizes to all forms of monotheism, accusing all religions of pious fraud, of "the holy lie." His hatred of Christianity is so profound that it overflows beyond its proper bounds to encompass other religions as well. It then becomes necessary to draw out the implications of this stance.
Nietzsche and Science
Nietzsche's relationship with science was ambivalent. While he recognized its utility and praised its naturalism, he also regarded science as being based on faith.
To make it possible for this discipline to begin, must there not be some prior conviction...? We see that science also rests on faith; there simply is no science "without presuppositions."
And in this, Nietzsche is right. Michael Polanyi, himself a scientist and a profound thinker on the philosophy of science, found belief to be an essential requirement of science: "no one can become a scientist unless he presumes that the scientific doctrine and method are fundamentally sound and that their ultimate premises can be unquestioningly accepted." "Any account of science which does not explicitly describe it as something we believe in is essentially incomplete and a false pretense." Nietzsche then continues:
... from where [does] science [take] its unconditional faith or conviction on which it rests, that truth is more important than any other thing, including every other conviction?... "I will not deceive, not even myself"; and with that we stand on moral ground.
Thus Nietzsche proves himself to be a moralist of knowledge. There is no "objective", i.e. morally neutral, knowledge. If we were to adopt a Sufic standpoint, we would see that Nietzsche demonstrates this from two perspectives. The perspective given above, that knowledge is sublime truth, is the standpoint of the Purified Self. Elsewhere, Nietzsche also demonstrates "that knowledge... is the subtlest guise of the Will to Power [of the egotistical self, as it is called in Sufi terminology]; and that as a manifestation of the will it is liable to be judged morally. "
Thus the question "Why science?" leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature and history are "not moral"? No doubt, those who are truthful in that audacious and ultimate sense that is presupposed by faith and science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this "other world"—look, must they not by the same token negate its counterpart, this world, our world?
As Edwin A. Burtt has shown, the world of science is an abstraction from this world, a 'Platonic' world based on mathematics.
—But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from... that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.
Following his own logic, Nietzsche necessarily comes to the point where God must be eradicated from his belief system, which is the antithesis of faith:
—But what if this should become more and more incredible... if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?
This forms the bedrock for Nietzsche's earlier comments:
The total character of the world, however, is in all eternity chaos—in the sense not of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms... Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses. Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word "accident" has any meaning.
Thus, the denial of God has driven Nietzsche to deny science, the laws of nature, the existence of order and even of causality. There is no purpose in the world, only chaos. Instead of "law," Nietzsche substitutes "necessity." But what is this but another name for "law"? Likewise, biologist Jacques Monod, in Chance and Necessity (1971), denied the purposefulness implied by "teleology" only to exchange it with an almost identical word, "teleonomy." What is gained by substituting one word for another if both are intended to describe the same thing?
Now it is interesting to note that Nietzsche is not alone in the conclusions he reaches. Before him, David Hume trod the same path, and in his efforts to deny God did away even with the connection between cause and effect. Thus, as Professor Jacques Barzun notes, Hume arrived at a distrust of science and religion alike: "Hume's last word of doubt on religion carries with it such a doubt about the mind of man that the certainty of science goes down in shipwreck too." It was Kant who, transcending Hume, slipped a fresh foundation under the work of science.
Strikingly, we find the same attitude in Nietzsche. In The Will to Power, he states: "the psychological necessity for a belief in causality lies in the inconceivability of an event divorced from intent... The belief in [causes] falls with the belief in [purpose]." Thus the denial of God leads to the denial of causality, the basic underpinning of science. The world is not an organism, it is not even a machine. Even grammar does not escape his attacks, for it is a system of rules, order, and the repository of a hidden belief in causality.
Why? Why do both Hume and Nietzsche, in their overzeal to deny God, end up debauching science as well? Because their denial of God is dependent on the denial of any order whatsoever in the universe. Because they knew that science took its origin, and is still based on, a world in which order prevails. If the world is chaos, there can be no order, and hence no laws either of nature or of science. (In our day, however, even the word "chaos" is being redefined, as mathematicians and scientists discern hidden order in chaos.) For the existence of any kind of laws presupposes a Lawgiver, and indeed the originators of modern science—Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, etc.—quite openly expressed their faith in a Divine Lawmaker. In order to deny the latter, Hume, Nietzsche, and those who follow their path must deny the existence of any kind of order at all. But without such order, the whole enterprise of science falls down, for it is then senseless to seek for laws, order or pattern in a disordered world. Nietzsche borders on Orwellian Newspeak in his implied conclusion: "truth is a lie," and falls into the same rut that he so despises in those who confuse mortality and immortality (see " Misconceptions About God" below). Yet paradoxically, Nietzsche was also genius enough to recognize that his nihilistic teaching (and Zarathustra's) is a "rebound from 'God is truth' to the fanatical faith 'All is false'."
But is all this true? "By their fruits you shall judge them." Science works—it is the most successful enterprise in the history of humanity. Even chance, even probability, has its laws and is not chaos. In that case, it makes sense to view the world as ordered, a place where laws—laws of science, laws of nature—hold. So it makes sense, in turn, to talk about a Lawgiver—which Newton, Copernicus, et al. had told us right from the very beginning, and which we would never have lost sight of had we not extended our debunking of the Christian conception of God to God Himself. The alternative is to assume that we ourselves project order onto the universe, which is a form of solipsism. In that case, though, the basis for an objective universe and materialism collapses. Even granting the point of solipsism, however, if man finds meaning within himself, where does he dredge up this meaning from? ...God is both transcendent and immanent. Contrary to what Nietzsche thought, He is not just incarnate in Jesus, and not just beyond the universe.
Having denied the existence of all order, all laws, Nietzsche then turns around and postulates his own "law" of eternal recurrence—the universe as a finite-state system in infinite time, an endless loop of tape replayed forever—for which there is not the slightest shred of physical evidence. Thus he replaces (as many people after him have also done) all the physics and metaphysics he has overthrown by his own brand of "naturalistic" metaphysics. Assuming that the universe is purely physical, this is the way Nietzsche reintroduces "rebirth" and "immortality"— primal yearnings of the human soul. In Germanic mythology, the world begins anew after the great destruction. The Greek concept of apokatastasis or restoration, and the early Christian views on redemption, are similar constructs. As Mircea Eliade has shown in his Myth of the Eternal Return, primitives, too, overcome the irreversibility of time by investing it with a cyclic attribute. The cosmic rhythms we observe, such as day and night or the seasons, lead in the end to an extrapolation to the universe as a whole, as evidenced even in the conjecture in modern cosmology of an "oscillating universe." Thus Nietzsche merely rediscovered an age-old concept of man.
One final point. Nietzsche's attempt to proclaim God dead results not only in the denial of truth, of science, but also of life. Had Nietzsche realized this, he would no doubt have deemed it necessary to revise his standpoint, for one of his main objections against Christianity was that it devalued life and this world by emphasizing the existence of—and the happier future state in—a next world. Now observe:
Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life. The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type.
By reducing spirit to matter and life to death, Nietzsche makes life an abnormal condition. And in the practice of lesser minds, such abstract philosophical concepts translate into an effort to kill off living things, to reduce them to their "normal" state. In Thomas Berger's novel, Little Big Man, an Indian chief says that such men "believe that everything is dead: stones, earth, animals, and people, even their own people. And if, in spite of that, things persist in trying to live, [they] will rub them out."
And hence, as Nietzsche feared, but also advocated in spite of himself, we reach total nihilism—the effort to turn everything into nothing.
Misconceptions about God
Man is man, and God is God. Man is mortal, God is immortal. This is a crucial rule by which all forms of monotheism must abide. Man may be spiritually purified and elevated to a "vision of God," but this does not allow us to confuse one with the other.
On a sunny day, go out into the sunshine. Bathe in it, be enlightened in it, be warmed by it. Then come back indoors and ask yourself: "Did I see the sun?" Yes. "Did it enlighten me?" Yes. "Did it warm me up?" Yes.
But: "Am I the sun?" No!
The case of God is similar to the case of the sun. No one who has enjoyed a special relationship with God, however close, can claim to be God Himself on the basis of that relationship or experience.
The Mansion and the Houseguests
Two other frequent misconceptions about God concern those on the other side of the fence. The concept of God as a puppet-master or an oriental despot, so often advanced by atheists, is simply wrong. If God had wanted absolute hegemony over man, nothing could have been simpler: He could simply have created a race of mindless robots. Instead He has given man a mind and free will, and placed him in charge of this planet. But there is no authority without responsibility. Hence man is responsible for what he does on earth. Free will means that man is free to choose both good and bad: God does not compel man to anything. Man is bound by his circumstances, but he is free to make moral choices and actions. If he does something out of compulsion, he is not responsible—which is precisely why Omar, the second Caliph whose penchant for justice was as legendary as that of King Solomon, forgave a destitute man when he stole some food from the market place. But free will without guidance is naught, for without guidance man might not be able to tell right from wrong. Hence God has given man both free will and the right guidance to use that freedom wisely.
But such freedom comes at a price. The price is that man is responsible, and hence accountable, for his actions. For this freedom of will and action means that man can hurt other men, that he can harm other creatures. If man has the license to interfere with God's creation, this does not mean he has the right to destroy or misplace anything.
The following parable is more to the point than the similes of either puppet-master or oriental despot. The rich owner of a country manor has sent various friends of his to stay there during their summer vacation. The trip, however, proves so rough that the guests are afflicted with amnesia by the time they arrive at the mansion. Inside they find rooms full of wondrous objects, tables decked with fruit, and beautiful tapestries. The owner of the house, aware of the difficult passage of his guests, has left a manual on the main table outlining the house rules. One of these rules is that the guests should share in the daily household chores, such as cooking and washing the dishes. Another is that they should show proper love and respect for each other, since they have all been chosen and sent there by the same landlord. It is also good etiquette to remember the landlord from time to time, to phone him and thank him for the beautiful gift he has made to his guests.
So from that point on, it is the guests' collective responsibility to manage the household. But if they fall among each other; if they start quarreling and attacking one another; if they dump their waste in the middle of the living room; if they start swinging from the chandeliers; if they make a hell out of this paradise resort; if they pretend that the landlord does not exist, or pick up the phone and curse him for all their own self-caused troubles; if their response is grumpiness instead of gratitude, then they will have sunk into the depths of discourtesy. And what if the guests ruin the house, if they destroy the furniture? What if they burn the house down in the end?
Now this is exactly our situation on earth. And for this reason if for nothing else, we must unmask all atheistic philosophies as a self-deception that provides man with an excuse to shirk his responsibilities, and to defile the mansion in which he is a guest—the world—with his abominations.
Nietzsche sees this quite clearly. In The Twilight of the Idols, after branding free will an "error", he states: "We deny God; in denying God, we deny accountability..." As a Dostoevsky character says: "If there is no God, everything is permitted." This is the real reason for denying God: the purpose is not to unveil some profound truth (as it happens, an untruth), but to deliver our egotistical selves from moral qualms and considerations. Eradicate belief in God, and you rip out the root of morality. Nietzsche has deciphered the sequence well: if no God, then no accountability; if no accountability, then no need, indeed no possibility, for morality. It is the next step in this sequence that Nietzsche instinctively shrinks away from: without morality, it becomes not merely possible, but inevitable, for us to perpetrate unspeakable monstrosities against each other, against other beings, against nature.
Of course, declaring the death of God has no more effect on His existence than the claim: "the President of the United States does not exist" has on the American President. Hence, we will be held to account whether we believe in God or not, and to think we can evade it is simply a delusion. Meanwhile, burying our heads in the ground like an ostrich only serves—by instilling a false sense of relief and license—to increase the dastardly deeds on our account, throwing us ever further "into the red."
The Base Self versus God
Let us now follow the consequences of the statement: "The belief in God is dead" to its logical conclusions...
What are the basic drives of the egotistical self? They are, first, its material—and by implication its financial—interests, its drive toward sexual satisfaction, and its will to power. Now all three points were dealt with in the 19th century by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, respectively. The insights of these men cannot be gainsaid. But they all lacked the knowledge that would allow them to integrate the three. And, furthermore, each one reduced questions of cosmic importance to his own discovery regarding a species inhabiting a dust speck in the vast expanses of the universe. Thus, the concept of God was, for Marx, a consequence of what he termed the "superstructure"; for Freud, a "sublimation, projection, or illusion"; and for Nietzsche, a self-deception.
Let us now go back to the egotistical self. Assume that its material needs, food and comfort are provided for. Assume, too, that its sexual drives have been satisfied. Yet for the Base Self this is not the end but merely a beginning, for it is precisely from this point onward that its further expansion must proceed. Nietzsche's original term for this in Daybreak and The Joyous Science, the "lust for power" or "love of power" (machtgelüst), is more revealing than his later "will to power." And indeed, left to its own devices, the Base Self will try to appropriate more and more power to itself—whether it be political power, social power, or pecuniary power. And Nietzsche, better than Marx or Freud, was able to discern this motivation. (Following in Nietzsche's footsteps, Alfred Adler and Bertrand Russell, too, identified power as the motive force in man.) Ahmad Sirhindi (1563-1624), ... once explained it this way:
The self in its state of impulsiveness (ammara) always strives to be superior... It refuses to acknowledge its dependence on and debt to others. This is nothing but a claim to divinity... Indeed, [such a] self will not settle even for partnership with God, but desires to subjugate even Him, to enslave all that exists. It is for this reason that aiding and abetting this self, the enemy of God, ... is the greatest of follies and disasters.
Here, the basic motivation of the Base Self stands revealed: it wants to be God, even if this is impossible. It desires absolute submission on the part of others.
Now the greatest obstacle in this way is belief in God Himself. The selfish ego in man cannot tolerate even God, or perhaps especially God, so it will try to abolish belief in God the first chance it gets. In all their merciless unmasking of base motives, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche never suspected that this was the reason for their atheism, and the subtlest thinkers fell victim to the even subtler tricks of the Base Self. Nietzsche's madman reveals the consequences of "God is dead": "... must not we ourselves become gods?" One of Dostoevsky's characters remarks: "If there is no God, then I am God." Nietzsche's following remark, the apogee of hubris, tells it all: "Today I love myself as my god." And indeed, in the final throes of Nietzsche's megalomania, he claimed that he was God.
... In his treatment of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, Carl G. Jung, the great psychologist, remarks:
If you knew what reality that fact possesses which has been called God, you would know that you could not possibly get away from it. But you have lost sight of it; you don't know what that thing means and so it gets at you unconsciously, and then without knowing it you are transformed into God almighty, as happened to Nietzsche. It got into him to such an extent that he went crazy and signed his letters "the dismembered [Dionysos] Zagreus," or "Christ Dionysos," because he became identical with the God he had eliminated. You see, inasmuch as we have eliminated God to a great extent, it is just as if we were all denying the fact that we were hungry, but then we begin to eat each other; we get so hungry that a catastrophe will follow... we now think that the progress of thought and the development of the human mind is hampered by the existence of such old prejudices, and we destroy those old forms because we think that we are gods and can do without them... There, of course, is the great danger of any creation: it destroys something which should not be destroyed, and out of that develop the most catastrophic consequences, as in Nietzsche's case.
Jung goes on to point out Nietzsche‘s "identification with the deity—the Superman takes the place of the deity."
But there is a further problem to be reckoned with here. Having declared God dead, Nietzsche's self-deification followed as a matter of course. But even this megalomania may not have been his real undoing. For there is yet a final twist, a further step to go: if God is dead, and Nietzsche is God, then Nietzsche is—dead! Dead, and yet alive! (Recall that he refers to himself as "the dismembered," "the crucified.") This short-circuit, this final paradox, must have proved too much of a strain for even the likes of his nimble mind, which thereupon committed mental suicide, and he became the ultimate embodiment—or is it the entombment?—of his own reasoning: a dead, shattered mind in a living body. Thus, it can be seen that in Nietzsche's case, the egotistical self declared its final rebellion by totally blotting out his mind, which it had driven to the point of exhaustion. (This is why Sirhindi says that aiding the Base Self is the greatest folly, the worst disaster.) Like a tool which has outlived its usefulness, it was then broken and thrown away, after all the efforts of his great spirit to achieve salvation had been successfully vanquished by his intellect using the deadly formula: "God is dead." Nietzsche's insanity has been linked with tertiary syphilis, but this—if true—can only have accelerated, not caused, the process.
It is a pity that this had to be the outcome, since Nietzsche had already deduced that "strenuousness," or self-exertion, was the way to go—in Sufi psychology, a cardinal method for cornering the Base Self. And this brings us to a discussion of Nietzsche's "Superman."
"Man is a rope," says Nietzsche in Zarathustra, "suspended between animal and superman—a rope over an abyss." Thus he portrays man as an unfinished, incomplete being. In this he is entirely in accord with Sufi psychology and the mystics of all traditions. But just at the point where Nietzsche's ideas begin to show the greatest potential, his project proves self-defeating—for he trips himself up by his continued adherence to "the death of God." Without God, there can be no Superman, no God-realized man, no saint, no man who is close to God; without that light and guidance, one can only be close to the devil.
... In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche recognizes the existence of a "higher self." "The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto?" He asks "what type of human being one ought to breed" : "This more valuable type has existed often enough already: but as a lucky accident, as an exception, never as willed." He talks of a "type of higher species of man, half 'saint', half 'genius'..."
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ... Couched in dreamlike imagery, it is Nietzsche’s spiritual journey and testament. Nietzsche wrote its major parts very quickly in a trancelike state, and elaborated upon them afterwards; his subconscious gushed forth onto the paper like a broken dam. In Jungian terms, the archetype of the "wise old man" became activated in him in the person of Zarathustra, and in Ecce Homo Nietzsche himself speaks of being "merely an incarnation, mouthpiece or medium" for that figure. Yet he appears to have only partially digested or assimilated the insights of the latter; as C.G. Jung notes, lacking the means of modern psychology, he does not display awareness in many cases of what the revelations flowing out through his hand really mean.
Zarathustra is replete with symbolism pertaining to the Base Self (called nafs al-ammara in Sufism). Not surprisingly, this aspect of Zarathustra has gone almost entirely unnoticed, for as Jung observed, "in the west we have no philosophy of the self", and even a man of his stature was not always able to discern the portent of these symbols (he refers to the Base Self as the "shadow" or "inferior man" when he does).
...he can never reach his goal, for he has already defeated his own purpose by accepting that "God is dead." Hence he deprives his 'higher species', the Superman or Overman (übermensch), of an ideal towards which to strive and approach asymptotically. The rocket he would shoot to the stars then misfires and burrows into the ground: "'Man must become better and more evil'—thus do I teach. The most evil is necessary for the superman's best." He castigates altruism as "the morality of decadence": "An 'altruistic' morality—a morality in which self-interest wilts away—remains a bad sign under all circumstances... The best is lacking when self-interest begins to be lacking... Man is finished when he becomes altruistic." Approvingly calling his Zarathustra "the destroyer of morality" and himself an 'immoralist', he continues in The Gay Science: "You will never again pray, never again worship... you have no perpetual guardian and friend... there is no longer for you any rewarder and recompenser, no final corrector—there is no longer any reason in what happens, no longer any love in what happens to you..."
Thus, like Dr. Frankenstein, Nietzsche sets out to create a superior human being, yet succeeds only in producing a monster. In Zarathustra, he lets the cat out of the bag: "I guess you would call my overman—devil." In The Antichrist, he defines happiness as "not peace, but war", and criticizes Christianity for having pictured "the strong man as the typically reprehensible man." Barred from elevation in the vertical direction, his "self-overcoming" can take place in only one direction: the ego can only expand—or rather inflate—in the horizontal. Lacking this vertical direction, the only thing left for him is to claim superiority through his own will to power. Thus every individual is left pitted against every other, and a common morality becomes impossible. Locked in the basement of the Base Self, with evil and cruelty as its guides, with the only goal repudiated, with the elevator and even the stairway out of the labyrinth bricked over, his 'superman' becomes, not a sage or saint, but a Hitler, a Stalin. His wine turns to vinegar, his elixir of life to poison. No wonder he went insane. As things stand, his 'superman' is hopelessly confused; a hodgepodge of the highest stage of selfhood, the "Purified Self," and the worst of the Base Self—a tainted mixture instead of pure, clear, sparkling water.
Yet after all is said and done, it cannot be denied that Nietzsche had great potential in him. Had he fallen into the hands of a competent Master, he would no doubt have borne fruit, his mind and his spirit would have declared peace, and would have begun to pull in the same direction instead of in opposite directions. Perhaps he himself might have become a 'superman' in the better sense of the term. Nietzsche realized as much: "If only I had a Master!" he once exclaimed—but it was not to be. There was nothing in the Western intellectual tradition to provide Nietzsche with the master he needed, nor is there still.
The Base Self and Science
Let us now turn to the question of the Base Self versus knowledge. We have already noted that Nietzsche was a moralist of knowledge. ...he conceived of knowledge in two different ways: as sublime Truth (which Nietzsche attributed to Plato and the wisest of all ages), and as the subtlest guise of the Will to Power (which Nietzsche himself advocated: the will to truth is the Will to Power, the passion to rule)....
Ever since Bacon, we have known that "knowledge is power." Lord Acton has informed us that: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Using the equivalence of knowledge and power, we arrive at: "absolute knowledge corrupts absolutely." This refers to the Base Self. The Base Self seeks knowledge not for its own sake, but for the love of power. This lust for power is progressively diminished as higher levels of selfhood are attained, until the Purified Self is reached; the latter contemplates knowledge as divine truth solely out of its love for Truth, not out of lust for the power that knowledge will give. Only the Purified Self is worthy of possessing knowledge, and deserves Truth, because it will never misappropriate, misuse, or abuse it.
Hence, knowledge in the hands of the Base Self is an extremely dangerous thing. The more the selfish ego knows, the more arrogant does it become, the greater is its tendency to self-deification. And awareness of this fact has never been so relevant as it is today, in the Information Age of our scientific civilization. Never have we possessed so much knowledge, and never has science, or information, been so dangerously open to misuse. Einstein's equation E=mc2 is a case in point: from the knowledge that matter can be converted into energy, we have fashioned weapons that will destroy the human race. But Copernicus, at the very beginning of the scientific revolution, was already aware of the implications, which explains his reluctance to make his discoveries widely known.
The following apocryphal letter, purportedly by Lysis, shook Copernicus to his very core and caused him to withhold his great discoveries for almost four decades:
After the death of Pythagoras... it remains our sacred duty to remember the divine teaching of our master and not to divulge the treasures of philosophy [read: "science"] to those who have not undergone preliminary purification of the mind... Some of his imitators achieve many and great things, but in an improper way... thus their audience is encouraged to ruthlessness and insolence, for they stain the pure tenets of philosophy with rash and impure demeanour. It is as if one were to pour clean, fresh water into a well filled with dirt—for the dirt will only get agitated, and the water will be wasted. This is what happens to those who teach and are taught in this manner. Thick and dark forests cover the minds and hearts of those who have not been initiated in the proper manner, and disturb the mild contemplation of ideas...
Yet once the atomic bomb was finished, the decision to use it, and to stockpile weapons the measure of whose destruction is beyond belief, was made by others. This signals the fact that in a technological civilization, in a scientific society, it is not enough to have scientists who are moral; everybody should pass through proper moral training. And if one considers that university students can now design an atomic bomb, plus the fact that the smallest nations are eager to lay hands on one, it becomes clear that the project must be worldwide.
All this demonstrates that in order to handle knowledge wisely, we must aim at an elevation and purification of the Base Self... Otherwise, knowledge or information in the hands of the Base Self can only lead to the misuse and abuse of power. Scientists, if they are not themselves evil, then become the instruments of those who are. In his novel Ape and Essence, Aldous Huxley portrayed this graphically by representing Einstein at the end of a leash held by a gorilla in a general's uniform.
So much for the beginning—but what of the end? What are the final consequences of the loss of belief in God? Nietzsche's formula cost him his sanity; what is the outcome if large sections of humanity cease to believe in God?
It is no longer possible to ignore the following fact: highfalutin, abstract metaphysical propositions have consequences in the physical world. A philosophical proposition declaimed by a pundit from his ivory tower, when acclaimed and acted out by men of lesser intelligence and even less conscience, lead to concrete results in the real world. These are the fruits of that seed, and "by their fruits you shall judge them." The fruits immediately lay bare the peculiar properties concealed in the seed which cannot be discovered without sowing it.
Nietzsche's formula has been sown for more than a century. It has become a standard, a stock item, an integral part in the intellectual equipment of the West. During this time, it has had the chance to grow, to bear fruit. A century after Nietzsche, where do we now find ourselves?
The history of the 20th century has been one of increasing decimation and devastation. The discovery of the most hideous weapon in history at the end of World War 2 has guaranteed that there will be few, if any, survivors at the end of the next world war, and those few will envy the dead. Two bombs—two bombs were all we had in 1945. Today, half a century later, we have not ten, not one hundred, but tens of thousands of these weapons, temporarily gathering mothballs. But don't be fooled—they're still there, all nations are lusting after them, and there's enough raw material for thousands more. The H-Bombs in their cocoons, the ballistic missiles in their silos may be hibernating now, but when their springtime comes they will resume proliferation.
Alongside this tremendous increase in murder-power—and murder is its proper name, for their greatest destruction is wrought on innocent civilians—the century soon to be left behind has witnessed atrocities unparalleled in history. Human beings have slaughtered each other in gas chambers, in ovens, in concentration camps, under torture, not by the thousands but by the tens of millions. To paraphrase Turkish poet M. A. Ersoy, "whole continents went boiling down into that maelstrom."
What is the magnitude of the death toll? Precise figures are impossible to obtain. In a chapter on "The Century of Megadeath" in his Out of Control (1993), Zbigniew Brzezinski attempted a rough estimate. His reckoning is conservative, and closer to a minimum value than what the losses actually were.
Brzezinski estimated that approximately 87 million people had perished in wars during the 20th century. An almost equal number, more than 80 million, had been murdered in cold blood as a result of ideologically motivated terror and totalitarian genocide. Thus upwards of 167 million, or almost 170 million people, represent the lower limit on this century’s dreadful ledger. "This," concludes Brzezinski, "is more than the total killed in all previous wars, civil conflicts, and religious persecutions throughout human history." The mind cannot deal adequately with carnage of such monstrous proportions, and is numbed into incomprehension by the very magnitudes involved. This incomprehension serves as a refuge for the human mind, which instinctively recoils from coming to terms with evil of such dimensions.
The 70 million dead in two world wars; the 50 million dead or missing in combat during the so-called "peace" period since the last world war; the 6 million Jews butchered in extermination camps; the untold millions handed over to famine; the tens of millions that perished in the Soviet Gulag (the devastation is of such magnitude that accurate figures cannot be cited, estimates ranging between 15 and 66 million); the comparable number that went to their deaths in China; the progressive institutionalization of torture by almost all the nations of the world; the ever-increasing degree of violence in the methods of torture; the lack of compassion for women, children and the aged—quite to the contrary, the compulsion to inflict even more merciless torture on precisely those who are most at our mercy—the terrors of the 20th century are far beyond the comprehension of any horror movie. What has happened in fact leaves fiction speechless, no matter how depraved or imaginative...
Jean-Paul Sartre, despite his atheism, spoke of the "God-shaped hole" in the human soul left by the death of faith. But he found it necessary to reject God whether He existed or not, since the idea of God, he supposed, negates human freedom— which was, of course, Nietzsche’s problem also. The crucial question, however, is freedom for what, exactly. If the laws of God "enjoin the good and forbid the evil," are we asking for anything else than freedom for evil when we ask for more freedom? And what possible good is going to derive from unleashing evil? If the freedom of man is not going to serve good, what possible value does it have? Are we asking for the freedom to murder multiples of six million human beings, like a Hitler, or tens of millions of human beings, like a Stalin? Are much smaller concentrations of evil absolved from being evil just because they are less? And are not such unspeakable, unnameable atrocities merely the accumulation of countless lesser evils? When one lives in a coccoon of abstractions, it is quite easy to lose sight of such simple things. And the "God-shaped hole" can only be filled by God again; nothing smaller will do.
Perhaps, in Nietzsche‘s time, the consequences of unbelief were still not sufficiently apparent. Perhaps it could still be claimed that a metaphysical belief was no different from the lack thereof. But today, we do not have this luxury open to us. Everything is now crystal clear. Man at the pinnacle of civilization, science, and technology is no different than a caveman wearing a tie. In terms of his capacity to inflict destruction, he is incomparably worse.
If belief in God is dead, then Doomsday is on the agenda. Mankind will self-destruct sooner or later in a gigantic spasm of insanity. Unbelief in God, in short, can mean only one thing: man's collective suicide. Nietzsche gives voice to a "deepest suspicion that is more and more gaining worse and worse control of us Europeans and that could easily confront coming generations with the terrifying Either/Or: 'Either abolish your reverences or—yourselves!' The latter would be nihilism; but would not the former also be—nihilism? That is our question mark."
In retrospect, we can see that the question is not one of Either/Or, but Both/And—better yet, If/Then: If you abolish faith in God, then you abolish yourselves. The first nihilism begets the second.
In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche makes the uncanny observation: "We have abolished the true world [the ideal world of Plato, the God of Christian religion]: which world is left? Perhaps the apparent one? Certainly not! Together with the true world we have also abolished the apparent one!" Nietzsche here not only makes the distinction between Necessary Being (God) and Contingent Being (universe) as dealt with in Sufism and Islamic philosophy, predicating the existence of the latter on the "Ground of all being." Much more eerily and perhaps unwittingly, he shows that by shutting the door on the light of God, we cripple the projection of that light into the universe. As long as that door remains closed, peace, love and meaning are not replenished but depleted, and mankind becomes steadily more depraved, merciless and desperate—psychologically abnormal. The stage grows darker and darker, until its collective consciousness of the universe is blotted out in a catastrophic paroxysm of global proportions.
If Nietzsche is the prophet of atheism, Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the Bible of atheism. But one fundamental question remains: why, then, was Nietzsche not satisfied with the simple death of God; why did he find it necessary to search beyond it for Zarathustra and the Superman? The reason is that he cannot stop, and man cannot stop; his noble spirit, though choking, continues on its spiritual quest. His greatness resides in the fact that he realizes that there lies something higher, something greater, beyond his conceptions, even if he cannot come to proper terms with it. His attempt manifests itself, as Jung demonstrates, in the archetypal symbol of Zarathustra. He is trying to find a way out of the nihilism that the death of God leaves in its wake. In the best humanistic tradition, he devalues a God "out there" in order to elevate Man. But what if God is not merely external to man, but also internal to him?
By rejecting God in toto, Nietzsche also inadvertently devalues man. Man is thereby estranged from the divine spark within and left as a husk, a mere shell. He is alienated from the wellsprings of his soul. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche proposes that man should not flow out to a God, but should ever accumulate water like a dam; he fails to see that it is the same God who flows into man, nourishing him from within, so that if man builds a dam against God, he will be left in the end with a dry riverbed on both sides of the dam, for the spring will dry up— or rather, be diverted. He thus obviates any possibility of man’s self-realization, and defeats the purpose of his mission. But man as he exists now is an unfinished being, and will always try to transcend himself; atheist or not, this is the condition of man. The quest that Nietzsche set out on has been realized in all true spiritual traditions, of which Islamic Sufism represents the culmination. From his Birth of Tragedy to the very end, this is the tragedy of Nietzsche, and this tragedy has become part of the very fabric of the twentieth century. "The true calling of man," said Aldous Huxley echoing Nietzsche, "is to find the way to himself." The "death of God" has blighted our lives to the extent that it has become the definitive concept in modern thought, and it is high time— "the highest time," in Zarathustra’s words— that we began the examination of Sufism in this light.
Nietzsche criticized Christianity for its supernatural aspect, for its emphasis on spirit to the detriment of nature, for its denial of nature and worldly life; and he was genius enough to see where this dichotomy has been transcended: "the culture of Islam... more congenial to our senses and tastes than Rome and Greece... owed its origins to noble... instincts, because it said Yes to life..." He saw, in other words, that the pair of opposites are here constellated in a radically different way, and that the rights of the body are recognized just as much as the rights of the spirit. A little more time, and he might also have realized that the "transvaluation of values" he was searching for had already been affected in Islam. For at bottom he was trying, not to do away with all values, but to transcend conventional morality with all its mendacity, contradictions and hypocrisies, to go beyond the specifically Christian conceptions of good and evil; and "evil" in the Christian sense has never existed in Islam.
"Nietzsche was by no means anti-moral in general but only anti-moral in the Christian, Buddhist, or any other strength-denying senses. He wanted to go beyond Good and Evil to reach the valid (as he thought) opposition, Good and Bad"— which are precisely the categories found in Islam. In line with the ego/power relationship discussed above, he attempted to formulate the contents of these categories solely in terms of power; but in addition to that, a sick, ailing, sleepless ex-professor, in pain but also in love with life, can perhaps be excused his resentment for weakness in all its forms; it is his own weaknesses he is reacting against. To him, life is strength; hence his opposition to Buddhism no less than to Christianity, as well as all other life-denying religions that wish to escape this world.
The Nightmare of Insanity
Nietzsche, who said: "God is dead," finally went insane. In a premonitory nightmare attributed to Zarathustra, Nietzsche provides us with a rare and chilling glimpse into his condition:
I had turned my back on all life, thus I dreamed. I had become a night watchman and a guardian of tombs upon the lonely mountain castle of Death. Up there I guarded his coffins... Life that had been overcome, looked at me out of glass coffins. I breathed the odor of dusty eternities: sultry and dusty lay my soul. And who could have aired his soul there?
The brightness of midnight was always about me; loneliness crouched next to it; and as a third, death-rattle silence, the worst of my friends. I had keys, the rustiest of all keys; and I knew how to use them to open the most creaking of all gates. Like a wickedly angry croaking, the sound ran through the long corridors when the gate's wings moved: fiendishly cried this bird, ferocious at being awakened. Yet still more terrible and heart-constricting was the moment when silence returned and it grew quiet about me, and I sat alone in this treacherous silence.
Thus time passed and crawled, if time still existed... But eventually that happened which awakened me. Thrice, strokes struck at the gate like thunder; the vaults echoed and howled thrice; then I went to the gate. "Alpa," I cried, "who is carrying his ashes up the mountain? Alpa! Alpa! Who is carrying his ases up the mountain?" And I pressed the key and tried to lift the gate and exerted myself; but still it did not give an inch. Then a roaring wind tore its wings apart; whistling, shrilling, and piercing, it cast up a black coffin before me.
And amid the roaring and whistling and shrilling the coffin burst and spewed out a thousandfold laughter. And from a thousand grimaces of children, angels, owls, fools, and butterflies as big as children, it laughed and mocked and roared at me. Then I was terribly frightened; it threw me to the ground. And I cried in horror as I have never cried. And my own cry awakened me—and I came to my senses.
As Professor Jung points out in his masterly analysis of this dream: "It is a horrible foreboding of [Nietzsche's] insanity... Insanity is the secret, the utter destruction of his mind... [The dream is weakly laid down to Zarathustra’s 'enemies.'] But who is his enemy? His own unconscious—his enemy is himself. So he has dreamt himself, that is his own case, his own insanity."
Having identified "God" with death and the devil in his mind, Nietzsche's dream takes the form of a descent into Hades, into hell. From time immemorial men have tried to master the unconscious—to unlock its secrets and to dominate it—using the rusty keys of their willpower. But the unconscious has always proved singularly impervious to such attempts at taming it: it has a life, a will of its own, and the will to power is ineffectual against it.
Nietzsche's Abysmal Thought, his unconscious, asks a question which Nietzsche reiterates above: "Who is carrying his own ashes up the mountain?" The answer is: Nietzsche himself is carrying the ashes of his own burnt-out mind. And the black coffin—both blackness and coffin symbolizing death—is again Nietzsche, out of which issue the thousand peals of laughter, the insane laughter of Nietzsche. (Zarathustra's disciple recognizes as much: "Are you not yourself the coffin?" he asks.) He tries to unlock the creaky gates of his unconscious; but his unconscious is also straining at the gates from the other side, and it then bursts forth with a roar, sweeping away the thin fabric of his reason, inundating him, overwhelming him with its contents—which is indeed what happened in the end. He became one of the "undead:" a dead mind in a living body, an insane laughter in a coffin.
Such a welling up of the unconscious—whether spontaneous or drug-induced—leaves one as helpless as a small boat on stormy seas. Under these conditions, there is only one solution: to anchor oneself solidly to the ground of this ocean: the Ground of all Being who is also the Ground of the unconscious. God, and God alone, can help against this merciless onslaught, and by taking refuge in God, by fixing one's attention, centering one's thoughts, on God, one can be saved from being drowned before the storm abates. But if we have repudiated God like Nietzsche, then there is nothing solid left to hold on to, and then there is "no exit" from the hell of insanity: certainly Nietzsche, who considered his Zarathustra—and therefore himself—as "a psychologist... who has no equal," did not prove immune.
To the extent that we think God is dead, we partake of Nietzsche's madness, we participate—however partially or subconsciously—in his insanity. If we wish to avoid his fate; if we wish to avoid the precipice towards which we all are still invisibly hurtling, we would do well to heed the following wise words:
He whose footsteps you follow in, His destination you will reach.