Joseph McCabe

By Jin-yeong Yi

Joseph McCabe in 1910

“[T]he trained athlete of disbelief”

—H. G. Wells

“One of the giants of not only English atheism, but world atheism, Joseph McCabe left a legacy of aggressive atheist and antireligious literature that remains fresh and insightful today.”

—infidels.org

For me, Joseph McCabe (1867-1955), Irish English Roman Catholic priest turned atheist intellectual and writer, has been something of a patron saint of not only atheism and freethought, but also learning and education in general. One of his chief publishers, the Jewish American socialist intellectual E. Haldeman-Julius, declared him to be the “world’s greatest scholar.” Overpraise, perhaps, but there seems to be little doubt that he was a scholar of the first order. Even Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton, one of his most notable opponents, acknowledged his competence and sincerity and applauded his intellect, albeit ironically, writing: “He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding.”[1]

Armed with tremendous mental energy, discipline, dedication (one non-contemporary commentator describes him as “a force of nature”); a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, and Spanish; as well as an unwavering belief in his mission and ideals, McCabe wrote extensively on religion, philosophy, evolutionary biology, chemistry, physics, politics, culture, and, above all, history, for half a century in a lifelong quest to disseminate knowledge and spread the gospel of scientific progress.

Although this Old Atheist no longer had “an atom of religion” in him ever since leaving the church, he was still very much the preacher, except that now he was championing atheism, science, freethought, democracy, secularism, rationalism, materialism, and Edwardian feminism. He wrote over 200 (250 by some counts) books. As he had a firm belief in the educability of all people, much of his output consisted of short booklets (some as short as a few dozen pages) that were designed primarily for working class laymen and laywomen. (I expect that he would be rolling in his grave if he knew of the exorbitant prices his books are selling for today.)[2]

McCabe was justifiably called a “one-man university” by contemporary Isaac Goldberg[3] and dubbed a “20th century Diderot” by biographer Bill Cooke (see his excellent biography on McCabe, titled A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism). When he wasn’t debating or drafting pamphlets, monographs, or encyclopedias with his sleek and lucid prose (which was not infrequently infused with subtle and dry wit), he gave lectures, delivering three to four thousand (according to his own estimate) of them by the end of his long life.

Unsurprisingly, McCabe was a controversial figure in his day. George Bernard Shaw is said to have once remarked that people smelled brimstone wherever the man went[4]. Also consider Hyman Levy’s hilarious recollection of him:

When I was a boy Joseph McCabe was taboo. He was the Bad Man who spread the gospel of wickedness, using Science, the gift of the Almighty, for his nefarious ends. And so when the Bad man came to Edinburgh to lecture the young boy slipped into the meeting (without paying), and listened enraptured to a discourse on the Evolution of the Universe, illustrated with a series of marvellous lantern slides.[5]

Few, if any, would claim that Joseph McCabe’s legacy is perfect. He was perhaps too keen on the atheistic Soviet Union (though he never actually embraced Marxism himself, having no use for dialectical materialism)[6], and, most unfortunately, had a proclivity for alienating other freethinkers with unremitting and unyielding criticism. Nonetheless, he always strove to keep a balanced view of the complex and multitudinous issues he tackled, and what he may have lacked in diplomacy he made up for with loyalty to his friends and all-around honesty. An individual who better represents the love of learning (as well as the love of teaching) would be difficult to find. It is hoped that his legacy will one day be revived and be given its rightful place in history.

Selected Quotes

“…Atheism grows in proportion to the growth of knowledge and freedom. No law of history is more consistently revealed in the records.”

(from “Is The Position Of Atheism Growing Stronger?”)

“Blessed are the ignorant, for they have no difficulties.”

(from “The Mythical History of the Jews”)

“[T]he most deadly solvent of religious belief—let the anti-evolutionists realize this—is the patient examination of the so-called evidence which is offered us in support of it.”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“The mind which has been artificially repressed will, if the process be not continued too long, expand more rapidly than the mind which is suffered to grow normally.”

(from The Romance of the Romanoffs)

“It is one of the ironies of the history of religion that what we call the great, historical, or organized religions took their rise from prophets whose mission in life it was to denounce religion in the sense in which these organized bodies use the word.”

(from How Christianity Grew Out Of Paganism)

“Do not listen to those who say that critics crush the voice of the heart in the name of reason. We want all the heart we can get in life, all the strength of emotion and devotion we can engender. But let it be expended on the plain, and plainly profitable, task of making this earth a Summerland. Do that, as your leisure and your powers permit, and, when your day is over, you will lie down with a smile, whether you are ever to awaken or are to sleep forever.”

“No people is entitled to be called civilised which complacently tolerates war, squalid and widespread poverty, dense areas of ignorance, political corruption, and the many other remnants of barbarism which they tolerated. The twentienth century was the last hour of barbarism, lit by a few rays of the civilisation which dawned in the twenty-first century.”

(from The Tyranny of Shams)

“Death is the law of the universe. In the days when Plato worked out the first rational arguments for immortality, as distinct from mere religious tradition, the claim was not so exorbitant. The stars themselves, the Greeks thought, were immortal. They were small, undying fires set in the firmament. Plants and animals died, of course, but these stars made men familiar with things which never died.

Now we know that the stars—not three thousand of them, as the Greeks thought, but two billion—are born and grow and die just like dogs, except that their life is immeasurably longer. There is a time when each is a shapeless cloud of stardust. There will be a time when the most brilliant star in the heavens will fade from the eyes of whatever mortals there may then be. They are made of the same material as our bodies: of gas and earth and metal. They fall under the great cosmic law that things which come together shall in the end go asunder—shall die.”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“Materialists do not deny the existence and importance of mind and its ideals.They deny that these are spiritual. But because the world has been accustomed to regard the mind and its ideals as spiritual, the cry is raised that ‘spiritual realities’ are in danger, when the question is merely whether they are spiritual or not. A great man of science like my friend the late Professor Loeb would smile at the idea that his interest in science ought to diminish when he came to the conclusion that the mind is only a function of the brain. Most of us ought to smile at the idea that we will turn the world upside down because we have come to the conclusion that it is the only world we shall ever know!”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“Pardon my little ironies whenever I come to these anti-democrats. I have never been able to see why the blunders of an uneducated democracy, as ours still is (though many an artisan is a sounder politician than many a professor or property owner), recommend anything except a practical education of the people.”

(on Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt)

“[N]early 40 years’ experience has shown me that a taste for beer and cowboy-stories is entirely consistent with a taste for perfect art and the highest intellectual exercises.”

“We are not only evolving, but evolving more rapidly than living thing ever did before. The pace increases every century. A calm and critical review of our development inspires a conviction that a few centuries will bring about the realisation of the highest dream that ever haunted the mind of the prophet. What splendours lie beyond that, the most soaring imagination cannot have the dimmest perception. …

“… Darwin was right. It is—not exclusively, but mainly—the struggle for life that has begotten higher types. Must every step of future progress be won by fresh and sustained struggle? At least we may say that the notion that progress in the future depends, as in the past, upon the pitting of flesh against flesh, and tooth against tooth, is a deplorable illusion. Such physical struggle is indeed necessary to evolve and maintain a type fit for the struggle. But a new thing has come into the story of the earth—wisdom and fine emotion. The processes which begot animal types in the past may be superseded; perhaps must be superseded. The battle of the future lies between wit and wit, art and art, generosity and generosity; and a great struggle and rivalry may proceed that will carry the distinctive powers of man to undreamed-of heights, yet be wholly innocent of the passion-lit, blood-stained conflict that has hitherto been the instrument of progress.”

(from The Story of Evolution)

“The end or purpose of life is what we choose to make it. There is no end or purpose written upon the stars. We make our goal; and the only end upon which we can agree, the ‘supreme good’ to which all other ideals are subordinate, is general happiness—the greatest happiness of the greatest number. …But what is happiness? I am not sure that I know.”

Notes

[1] Orthodoxy, Chapter 2: The Maniac

[2] From what I gather, in McCabe’s day, the books sold from anywhere between $0.05-$0.25, which translates into roughly $1.10-$5.50 today. Granted, they were cheaply printed pocket books, but considering the sheer quantity of volumes that McCabe was generating, it only made sense (no pun intended) to make them as affordable as possible. At present, $15-$25 price tags are the norm.

[3] Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought – Fifty Years on the Rationalist Front 

[4] http://www.mclemee.com/id155.html

[5] A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism, Chapter 3: The Trained Athlete of Disbelief

[6] Also, considering the fact that he died long before the collapse of the USSR, it is difficult if not impossible to tell what a complete evaluation of the regime would have looked like.

In Defense of the Illogical

By Jin-yeong Yi 

“Where is reality? Can you show it to me?”

—Heinz von Foerster

Early this year, I wrote in “The Magic of Fiction”

…I find that fiction makes the most sense when I view it as a dream. From this perspective, plotholes, as well as realism and plausibility in general, aren’t exactly of earth-shattering importance. It’s imaginative fiction. It’s a dream, not a documentary. Dreams are often logically inconsistent and are not infrequently downright absurd, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be enjoyable or edifying, or even enlightening and life-changing. Why must fantasy be brought down to the level of reality? Is not the fundamental goal of fiction to convey an experience, which is something that can be appreciated with or without the element of realism?

When it comes to objective reality, probabilities trump possibilities. But when it comes to subjective fantasy, possibilities far and away trump probabilities.

PZ Myers does a rather fine job of illustrating my point with his critical blog post on Man of Steel:

The falling woman trope. It’s everywhere. The poor woman is plummeting to her doom at the terminal velocity of 200 km/hr, and superhero swoops upwards at even greater speed and catches her. This doesn’t work. At that speed, invulnerable super-strong arms are like blunt blades and are going to messily trisect the victim.

Slugfests. In every case, bad guy meets good guy and you know that shortly they’ll start throwing roundhouse blows at each other. This is not how people interact with each other, except when they’re very drunk and stupid. These are supposed to be super-intelligent, powerful beings, and their standard response to any challenge is to punch someone in the nose.

There has to be a witness. This is a corollary to the absence of deaths. A couple of the secondary human characters face the most traumatic event ever — one of them is stuck under a pile of rebar and concrete (don’t worry, they pry her out and she’s completely uninjured!) so they can stand around and gawp as the superclowns rampage all over their city. Titanic forces are shattering whole buildings, but they stand there getting a little dust in their faces, and that’s it. (Emphasis mine) 

It’s understandable that someone so firmly grounded in the hard sciences as Professor Myers is would view fiction in this light. It’s not “right” or “wrong,” but I simply don’t think that the laws that govern the prison of the real need to encroach upon the free lands of the unreal. If the tyranny of logic is absent in the realm of the imagination by default, why must we go out of our way to voluntarily enforce it? I render unto reality the things which are reality’s, but when it comes to fantasy, I embrace the illogical–and the impossible.      

As James Cameron put it, “[T]he beauty of movies is that they don’t have to be logical. They just have to have plausibility.”

I would go a step further and say that the content of movies, and fantasy in general, doesn’t even need to be plausible–just imaginable. If something can be conceived, be imagined, that is enough. For what matters is the experience. 

In Defense of Dreams

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I never ask a man what his business is, for it never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

“Dreams are real while they last; can we say more of life?”

—Havelock Ellis

“Calm, lasting beauty comes only in a dream, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence.”

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

In his immensely thoughtful and insightful book, Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self, seasoned oneironaut Robert Waggoner delineates one of the obstacles that aspiring dreamers face:

To begin with, the current culture largely devalues dreams as either meaningless or imbued with personal angst, cloaked in indecipherable symbols. The thinking goes that even if you become aware within the dream state (which society deems basically absurd), what have you accomplished? In the face of cultural beliefs like these, challenging one’s self to achieve a dreaming skill can be a lonely affair with little external recognition or support.[1]

This was news to me because “dream,” as a word and a concept, figures so conspicuously in everyday language. People use the phrase “the man/woman of my dreams” to describe the ideal partner, “like a dream” to describe something truly wondrous, and “a dream come true” to describe a desire that seemed too beautiful to be realized.

But does seem to be true that reality is increasingly being emphasized over fantasy. It seems that more and more people favor what is “realistic” and “logical” in their stories. Perhaps this desire for fantasy to conform to reality is only natural, given the apparent triumph of science and the fact that the mundanity of waking life is decidedly far more prominent than the magic of dream life. Dreams simply aren’t a big part of everyday life. You don’t have to remember any of the adventures you have while you sleep, but you do have to be at the office by 8:00 AM each morning.

Oh, but what does it matter if dreams last for only an hour at the most! It is only within this fleeting moment in which one can briefly step outside of the prison of the real and taste the air of freedom. A visit to this strange and wonderful realm reminds one that the dull and dreary walls, the “gilded cages” that Aldous Huxley spoke of, are not absolute.

Many years ago, one of my brothers-in-law and I started a water gun fight out of the blue in his backyard. What began as a small provocation rapidly escalated into a two-man war with Super Soakers that left us completely drenched. We chased each other around the garden, laughing and enjoying ourselves. When it was over, my brother-in-law, who disapproved of my love for video games, had a moral for me. “Do you know why that was fun?” he asked. “Because it was real.”

In my final year of college, I tried my hand at writing fanfiction. One day, while I was on the freeway, en route to my university, I gazed at the rocky hills in the distance, shrouded by a peculiar, light magenta haze. Beholding this rather surreal landscape, something occurred to me: that what made fanfiction so great was the same thing that made lucid dreams so great. Surely many of us have read a book or watched a movie with great delight and anticipation, only to be disappointed by the ending. And surely most of us have felt, at least one time or another, that some chapters of our own lives could’ve been written better. That’s the beauty of both fanfiction and lucid dreams: they are means by which we can take matters into our own hands and write a better story.

As a counterpoint to the dim view of dreams held by modern society, I will mention the Pirahãs’ intriguing take on this phenomenon, which Daniel Everett explains in Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes:

To the Pirahãs, dreams are a continuation of real and immediate experience. … 

… I came eventually to understand that xaipípai [“what is in your head when you sleep”] is dreaming, but with a twist: it is classified as a real experience. You are an eyewitness to your dreams. Dreams are not fiction to the Pirahãs. You see one way awake and another way while asleep, but both ways of seeing are real experiences.[2]  

They certainly have a point. It’s a very sensible and healthy way of looking at it. I think I would go so far as to say that dream life is every bit as important as waking life, if not even more important.

Could one’s life in the dream world be superior to one’s life in the waking world? It may well be. If what we humans seek in life is experience, dreams, especially lucid dreams, are certainly more than capable of providing it. Furthermore, one can have experiences in the dream world that would be unattainable in the real world. We tend to blithely assume that we can and eventually will fulfill our heart’s desires in the real world, even if we are well aware that the cosmos is utterly indifferent to us and neither promises nor owes us anything. In reality, it is probable that most if not all of the dreams we wish to fulfill will always remain just that: dreams. Odds are that circumstances, other people, and our own limitations as individuals will prevent us from realizing them, no matter how much determination we have and how much time and effort we are willing to invest.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that we cannot translate our dreams into actual experiences. There is virtually nothing we cannot do in the dream world—our imagination is the limit. And it may be that the precious opportunities to attain the experiences we seek can only be found in this realm.

True freedom does not exist in the real world, because true freedom consists of being bound by nothing except one’s imagination.

I conclude with the opening paragraphs of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key”:

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.

He had read much of things as they are, and talked with too many people. Well-meaning philosophers had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies. Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other. Custom had dinned into his ears a superstitious reverence for that which tangibly and physically exists, and had made him secretly ashamed to dwell in visions. Wise men told him his simple fancies were inane and childish, and he believed it because he could see that they might easily be so. What he failed to recall was that the deeds of reality are just as inane and childish, and even more absurd because their actors persist in fancying them full of meaning and purpose as the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.

Notes

[1] Chapter 9: The Five Stages of Lucid Dreaming

[2] Chapter 7: Nature and the Immediacy of Experience. Elsewhere, Professor Everett notes, “The Pirahãs attach no mystical significance to their dreams. They are experiences like all others…”

Of Reading and Experience

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.”

—Frederick Douglass

“I couldn’t live a week without a private library – indeed, I’d part with all my furniture and squat and sleep on the floor before I’d let go of the 1500 or so books I possess.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

In my sophomore year of college, I was taking a political science course. One day, I went to the TA’s office for a mandatory consultation about my essay. When I stepped into the room, I saw the TA hunched over a compilation of Benjamin Constant’s political writings, which was one of the texts we were studying in class. The sight struck me and remained with me ever since. He looks like he’s praying…in this modern age, to pray is to read. This was the wordless thought that entered my mind. The TA’s office was a monastic cell, and the TA was a monk pursuing enlightenment not through chants or supplications or fasting, but purely through the intensive study of the printed word. As an aspiring Eastern Orthodox Christian at the time, I naturally disapproved of this worship of knowledge (secular knowledge, no less).

My disapproval of the worship of the printed word has since been replaced by a simple recognition of its limitations.

They had chained him down to things that are, and had then explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world. When he complained, and longed to escape into twilight realms where magic moulded all the little vivid fragments and prized associations of his mind into vistas of breathless expectancy and unquenchable delight, they turned him instead toward the new-found prodigies of science, bidding him find wonder in the atom’s vortex and mystery in the sky’s dimensions. And when he had failed to find these boons in things whose laws are known and measurable, they told him he lacked imagination, and was immature because he preferred dream-illusions to the illusions of our physical creation. 

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

In his A History of Philosophy series, Frederick Copleston notes how Immanuel Kant “astonished” people who had experience traveling to other countries with knowledge that he’d amassed exclusively through reading.[1] I have little doubt that Kant’s knowledge was impressive, but I think I would personally rather read an eyewitness account of a country written by a half-educated man than an armchair account written by a genius. In this respect I seem to have something in common with the Pirahã people of the Amazonian jungle,[2] in that I value the immediacy of experience.

When I was working part-time, there was a period in which I divided my time between reading and exercise. In the morning or the afternoon, I would take 3-5 mile walks through the suburbs. It was during these simple walks that I discovered the difference between reading and experience.

When walking, I noticed that the activity engaged most if not all of my senses; I was taking in sights, sounds, smells, and sensations: the bright sky, the rumbling of passing cars, the almost sickeningly sweet scent of pine, the sting of a cold wind.

Of course, reading is a type of experience: you feel the book (or e-book reader) in your hands and experience a range of emotions as the data feeds into your brain. This seems particularly true of imaginative literature.

But something seemed to be missing. As rewarding as I found reading to be, I couldn’t exactly tell a story about it: I could tell of a beginning, a progression, and an end, and the emotions I experienced during that time, but in the end I would only be speaking of what I saw, not what I did. There was much to gain from “going places in my head,” but all of it, it seemed to me, was ultimately a preparation for something more substantial–a real journey, an adventure, an experience that engaged every aspect of my being. In The Doctrine of Awakening, Julius Evola wrote something similar in regard to the difference between Buddhist theory and practice:

“Texts, dogmas, precepts are so many bonds or so many crutches, to be put aside that one may advance on one’s own. The Buddhist canonical literature itself is likened to a window, from which one contemplates the great scene of nature: but to live in this scene you must jump outside the window.”[3]

I feel that all of the reading I have been doing is something akin to studying maps. Is this preparation in vain, or will there be an actual, undiscovered country for me to explore? That is what I intend to find out.

Notes

[1] Chapter X: Kant (I): Life and Writings

[2] See Daniel Everett’s excellent book on the Pirahãs, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.

[3] Chapter 18: Up to Zen

The Quiet Genocide

By Jin-yeong Yi

Eastern Orthodox hieromonk Damascene Christensen once wrote:

“Suicide takes the lives of 6,000 of the young generation in the U.S. each year. This phenomenon is something unheard of in the history of the world. Why should this be, if the world is truly becoming a better place? Suicide is the last Genocide.”[1]

In Japan alone, there have been over 30,000 suicides each year for the past 14 years.[2] That’s over 420,000 deaths. 420,000 individuals who died not because they were murdered, or because they succumbed to cancer, or because they got into a fatal accident or a natural disaster–but because, for one reason or another, they decided that they would be better off dead than alive. 420,000 dead and counting. And that’s just in one country.

Mass suicide may not be the last genocide, but it doesn’t seem to get as much attention as mass murder. If, say, a terrorist group captured 10,000-30,000 people (or even just 10% or less thereof) and announced that they would execute them all within the year, there would likely be a great deal of outcry around the world.

Of course, such a scenario is very different from mass suicide. Suicides are often isolated incidents; even with suicide pacts, the deaths are spread out and, what’s more, they are frequently unpredictable. When the murderer and the victim are the same person, it’s not exactly easy to protect one from the other.

But the point still stands. Hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people are dying by their own hand year after year.[3] Some of them may cause a scene by throwing themselves off buildings or in front of oncoming trains or cars, but others fade away quietly. We have a bestselling suicide instruction manual in Japan and assisted suicide organizations in all over the world that attract not only the terminally ill but also the suicidally depressed.[4] The body count climbs, and the problem remains unsolved. By the time I finish composing this sentence, another person will take their life, and millions if not tens of millions of others are at this very moment seriously contemplating doing the same. And it does not seem that a whole lot is being done about it.

Is there a solution? It’s likely, seeing that suicide epidemics of such proportions seem to be a relatively recent phenomenon. But whatever the solution is, obviously it will have to penetrate much deeper than any token government program. It doesn’t take a physician to see that combating the symptoms of a disease is not the same as neutralizing the actual cause. And if suicide is a problem, then the present society is very diseased indeed. Restoring the will to live may demand nothing less than a radical transmutation of society from the ground up. While it is most improbable that we can turn the Earth into Heaven, moving it in the direction of Heaven and away from Hell is surely always an option.

In the meantime, there appears to be little that can be done, except on an individual level. Life is a losing battle from the start, and ultimately it is every man for himself. As Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption says, “it comes down to a simple choice, really: get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

Notes

[1] http://www.stinnocent.com/seraphim/dtw/dtw4/suicide.htm

[2] http://www.tokyotimes.com/2012/suicide-in-japan-exceeds-30000-for-14th-year/

[3] http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/234219.php

[4] Although the services of such organizations are available to only terminally ill clients; unqualified, suicidally depressed people have been known to forge medical documents in order to gain eligibility.