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.

An Atheist Goes to Confession

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking.”

—H. L. Mencken

“The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me”

—Meister Eckhart

I went to confession last month in preparation for Easter.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was confirmed as a Catholic in my teenage years, shortly before becoming an atheist. Technically, I am still a Catholic. Like Martin Scorsese once said, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic, there’s no way out of it.” In addition to my qualifications, I attend Mass every Sunday morning and recite the prayers, sing the hymns, exchange signs of peace, and receive the body and blood of Christ. I do it because I think it gives my devoutly Catholic parents some comfort to know that their son is keeping in touch with the Lord.

My mother had called me about the mass confessions that were to take place at her church, and at first I refused to go. (“I have no sins to confess.”) Attending Mass was one thing, but going to confession was a bit much. I’d already gone last year, and, though I didn’t believe in right and wrong, I’d felt guilty about it, because in a way I’d been betraying the priest’s trust by pretending to be a believer. However, I didn’t want my mother to feel that I was missing out on the opportunity to receive God’s forgiveness, so I ended up going. This was to be my second confession as an atheist. Since I didn’t believe in sin, I would, like last time, enumerate the things I wasn’t proud of.

After a fairly brief wait at church, I walked into the confession room. There I was once again face to face with the elderly Irish priest I’d met last year.

The following is a rough reconstruction of the conversation that took place:

“How long has it been since your last confession?” the priest asked.

“Three, four months, I think.”

He nodded, as if in approval. I wondered if he remembered who I was.

“So, do you have any sins to confess?”

“Well, yes; that’s what I’m here for.”

If I was going to go through with this, I wanted to at least be sincere about it. My strategy this time around was to make use of Christian language. Last time, I’d spoken in such a way that the priest might have wondered if I was a closet secular humanist.

“I don’t honor my father and mother as much as they deserve,” I began. The priest nodded knowingly as I spoke.

I proceeded to the next item on the short list I’d written up. “Gluttony—I often eat more than I need to. Sloth—I often procrastinate, and don’t make the best use of my time. Wrath—I often get angry at others even while knowing that they’re ultimately not responsible for what I blame them for. Envy—oh, this is a big problem for me.” There was a hint of something resembling enthusiasm in my voice, and part of the reason for that was that envy really was one of my biggest problems, if not the biggest one. “I often feel envy when I see that someone has something that I don’t have, and I feel jealousy when I see that someone has something that I do have.”

Thus ended my confession.

“How are you feeling right now?” inquired the priest.

“How am I feeling?”

“Are you feeling good, or bad?”

“Well, I guess you can say I feel kind of bad.” (Because I’d failed myself, because I wasn’t able to meet my own expectations.)

Then the priest asked, “If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be?”

The million dollar question. I was prepared this time, or so I’d thought. For a moment I couldn’t remember what it was I wanted to say. I fumbled for words before the answer clicked back into place.

“I want determination.”

For some reason the priest couldn’t understand, so I tried “passion.”

“I want to have passion for my goals,” I clarified.

“Does anything about what you’ve just said strike you?” asked the priest.

“Strike me?” I racked my brains to try to figure out what that could possibly be.

After a long pause, the priest supplied the answer I wasn’t able to find.

“It’s somewhat self-centered. What about other people? Don’t you think about what you can do for others?”

“Well, yes. I do help others…but not as much as I can,” I said.

The priest waited for me to elaborate.

“It’s kind of the opposite of a slippery slope,” I explained, struggling to find the words.

“Ah,” the priest said, appearing to have immediately grasped what it was I was clumsily trying to convey.

“I can do things for others, but there’s always something more I can do,” I continued. “There’s no limit. There’s always…more.”

I thought of the countless ambitions I had, the personal goals that I would not be able to achieve in two lifetimes.

“Complete self-sacrifice…is something I can never do,” I concluded.

The priest administered my penance: 5 Our Father’s and 3 Hail Mary’s. I started to get up from my chair when the priest started to speak again.

“When I was about your age, I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.

“An airplane pilot?” For some reason I’d felt the need to ask for clarification.

“Yes. But my eyesight wasn’t good enough. So I became a missionary. I worked in Korea, then Koreatown, and…here I am.”

Then the priest asked me to pray for him. Not sure I’d heard him correctly, I got him to repeat what he’d said. After crossing myself and exchanging words of thanks, I got up, left the room, and headed toward the parking lot. I was puzzled. Why did he want me to pray for him? It was as if he’d somehow felt humbled by something I’d said.

Either way, I’d agreed to pray for him. So on the drive home, I, a godless nihilist, prayed for a Catholic priest. As far as I was concerned, I was talking to no one but myself. I don’t quite remember what I “prayed” for; I think it was for the laws of physics to operate in ways that would be favorable to the priest. Since the laws of physics were blind and indifferent, all one could do was hope. I also did my penance, reciting the Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s over the roar of Incantation’s “Blasphemous Cremation.” Why did I do it? Because the priest was trusting that I would do it, and because I wanted to honor the agreement between us. God wasn’t watching me, but I was.

In the same way, the confession was ultimately not between me and God, or even between me and the priest, but between me and myself.

Beyond Heaven and Hell: A Brief Analysis of Meister Eckhart’s 87th Sermon

By Jin-yeong Yi

Drop of water in water

“By meditating on our birth, we can also see that there appears to be a definite time at which our existence began. Before our birth this ‘I’ did not exist. But we realize that cannot be. There can never be a stage in which we did not exist, and this ‘I’ is only a temporary reflection of our infinite existence.
Similarly, by meditating on our death, we can see that it is impossible that there will come a time when when we do not exist. It is only this individual consciousness that will cease to exist, our true ‘I,’ the subject of our consciousness, must always continue to exist.”

—P. J. Mazumdar, The Circle of Fire

“It is child’s talk that a man dies and goes to heaven. We never come nor go. We are where we are. All the souls that have been, are, and will be, are on one geometrical point.”

—Swami Vivekananda

If you’re an atheist, you probably don’t believe in life after death. Medieval Christian theologian Meister Eckhart may convince you otherwise. Here is an excerpt from his 87th sermon:

“Now pay earnest attention to this! I have often said, and eminent authorities say it too, that a man should be so free of all things and all works, both inward and outward, that he may be a proper abode for God where God can work. Now we shall say something else. If it is the case that a man is free of all creatures, of God and of self, and if it is still the case that God finds a place in him to work, then we declare that as long as this is in that man, he is not poor with the strictest poverty…  So we say that a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has any place for God to work in. To preserve a place is to preserve distinction. Therefore I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures. For in that essence of God in which God is above being and distinction, there I was myself and knew myself so as to make this man. Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal. Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die. According to my unborn mode I have eternally been, am now and shall eternally remain. That which I am by virtue of birth must die and perish, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time. In my birth all things were born, and I was the cause of myself and all things: and if I had so willed it, I would not have been, and all things would not have been. If I were not, God would not be either. I am the cause of God’s being God: if I were not, then God would not be God. But you do not need to know this.

A great master says that his breaking-through is nobler than his emanation, and this is true. When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: ‘There is a God’; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature. But in my breaking-through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works, and of God himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain for evermore. There I shall receive an imprint that will raise me above all the angels. By this imprint I shall gain such wealth that I shall not be content with God inasmuch as he is God, or with all His divine works: for this breaking-through guarantees to me that I and God are one. Then I am what I was, then I neither wax nor wane, for then I am an unmoved cause that moves all things. Here, God finds no place in man, for man by his poverty wins for himself what he has eternally been and shall eternally remain. Here, God is one with the spirit, and that is the strictest poverty one can find.

If anyone cannot understand this sermon, he need not worry. For so long as a man is not equal to this truth, he cannot understand my words, for this is a naked truth which has come direct from the heart of God.”

This text is intrinsically about nothing. I don’t know what Eckhart, who was a highly controversial figure during his time, really intended for it to mean. The following is what it means to me personally:

So we say that a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has any place for God to work in. To preserve a place is to preserve distinction.”

“God” = the universe as a whole. In the same way that a solar prominence is not separate from the Sun, we are fundamentally not distinct from God: we are God; we only need to realize this fact.

“Therefore, I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures.”

Notice that Eckhart uses the word “origin” rather than “creator” in referring to God.

“Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal.”

“Essence” = energy. Energy is eternal because, according to the first law of thermodynamics, it cannot be created nor destroyed. “Becoming” = a particular, dynamic configuration of matter, which arises out of energy.

“Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die.”

If the universe is eternal, and we are an inextricable part of the universe, then we are eternal.

“That which I am by virtue of birth must die and perish, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time.”

“That which I am by virtue of birth” = a particular, transient collocation of matter.

“When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: “There is a God”; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature.”

Once again, notice Eckhart’s unusual wording. He does not say “When I was created by God,” let alone “created by God ex nihilo.”

“But in my breaking-through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works, and of God himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain for evermore.”

To recognize that the constituent parts we are made of are eternal is to recognize that we have always existed and always will.

“Here, God is one with the spirit, and that is the strictest poverty one can find.”

“Strictest poverty” = absolute purity without any accoutrements, the essence without the externals. In other words, complete identification with what is eternal: the universe, sans personification.

If this is how the real afterlife looks like, well, I suppose one could do a lot worse…

“Oh, if only you knew yourselves! You are souls; you are Gods. If ever I feel like blaspheming, it; is when I call you man.”

—Swami Vivekananda

The Freedom of Nothingness

By Jin-yeong Yi

Tasting the forbidden fruit

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Atheistic nihilism isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Well, actually, it is objectively neither good nor bad, because according to nihilism, nothing is objectively good or bad. So trying to “sell” this viewpoint in the marketplace of ideas is pretty much a lost cause from the beginning. And I don’t think I would have it any other way; I like the idea that atheistic nihilism is territory that angels fear to tread.

Still, the question is worth addressing: “What’s so great about having no intrinsic meaning or purpose to life?”

Well, one advantage that the nihilist has, depending on how you look at it, is the fact that he can afford to get his hands dirty. Liberation from religion, liberation from my beliefs about sin and morality in particular, left me free to explore avenues of the mind and soul that I had hitherto never dreamed of exploring: the penetralia of science, of religion, of philosophy, of the occult, of sexuality. Of Life itself.

No longer am I bound by anything, except the limitations of my intellectual equipment and how far I dare to go. The forbidden fruit of knowledge is mine for the picking.

Voivod – “Technocratic Manipulators”

I’ve passed the entry of the system
They taught me with an anthem
It seems like I’m one of them
A kind of people I can’t describe
They got a number between their eyes
Identity has been commanded
Subconscious has recorded
The orders from the big head
I’m now a part of this machine
Supervised by the telescreen
That’s not for me, too much for me
That’s all for me
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
During the night my soul is hearing
Usual advertising
Message that I’m still learning
One thousand times it’s a routine
Should be enough to fall asleep
That’s not for me, too much for me
That’s all for me
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
Is it the same message
For the preconceived children ?
Let me know, before I go…
Death of their liberty
Feeds the supremacy
Under hypnosis I take a walk
Controlled people have to stop
Robotic voice starts to talk
Why we must be listening
I think we all had the same dreams
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
I’d rather think
But there’s something strong
I’d rather think
But there’s something wrong
I’d rather think (6)
I’d rather think
Coz my mind despairs
I’d rather think
Coz I can’t live there
I’d rather think…think !

The Other Artistic Contribution of Christianity

By Jin-yeong Yi

Inverted pentagram (black)

“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

“Rebellion is the salt of the earth.”

—Joseph McCabe

Who says that good things haven’t come out of Christianity? Many artistic geniuses have utilized its symbols to yield what are widely hailed as great achievements, such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, and Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, to name a few. But there is another, lesser known breed of art that this religion has produced: death metal and black metal. It hardly needs to be pointed out that these musical forms would never have existed if it weren’t for Christianity.

Writing in 1905, Christian philosopher and apologist G. K. Chesterton observed:

“Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.”[1]

Writing 102 years later, atheist conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple protested against the increasing hostility toward religion:

“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.”[2]

In the same year, atheist feminist and cultural critic Camille Paglia argued that “only religion can save the arts”:

“Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.”[3]

When one listens to diabolical masterpieces[4] such as Morbid Angel’s The Altars of Madness, Incantation’s Onward to Golgotha, Necrophobic’s The Nocturnal Silence, Profanatica’s Profanatitas de Domonatia, Havohej’s Dethrone the Son of God, Cryptopsy’s None So Vile, Demoncy’s Joined in Darkness, or Immolation’s Close to a World Below, and imbibes and delights in their unholy glory day after day, one is tempted to agree.

Would the world have been better off without Christianity? Maybe, maybe not. Part of the answer depends on subjective values and the other part depends on whether it is possible to travel back in time and conduct historical control experiments. Either way, I, for one, am thankful for the art that has been made in rebellion against it. Along with classical music and cathedrals, death metal and black metal are part of the legacy of the most beloved and most hated religion that the world has ever known.

Ah, ’tis verily a good age to be a blasphemer.

Notes

[1] Heretics by G. K. Chesterton

[2] “What the New Atheists Don’t See” by Theodore Dalrymple

[3] “Religion and the Arts in America” by Camille Paglia

[4] See the deathmetal.org article, “The most blasphemous devil metal,” for more recommended listening.

Atheist Elitism

By Jin-yeong Yi

Louis Carmontelle - Baron d'HolbachNiall Ferguson

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

—Voltaire

Is atheism good for humanity? (Depends on how you define “good,” of course.) That almost all religious people would reply in the negative is a given. However, even among atheists and other secular people there are not a few individuals that are skeptical of the notion that humankind would be better off without religion. Consider this sampling of quotations:

“You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself.”

—Benjamin Franklin, letter to Thomas Paine

“Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.”

—Napoleon Bonaparte

“Religion is still useful among the herd – that it helps their orderly conduct as nothing else could. The crude human animal is in-eradicably superstitious, and there is every biological reason why they should be.
Take away his Christian god and saints, and he will worship something else…”

—H. P. Lovecraft

“The principles of atheism are not formed for the mass of the people, who are commonly under the tutelage of their priests; they are not calculated for those frivolous capacities, not suited to those dissipated minds, who fill society with their vices, who hourly afford evidence of their own inutility; they will not gratify the ambitious; neither are they adapted to intriguers, nor fitted for those restless beings who find their immediate interest in disturbing the harmony of the social compact: much less are they made for a great number of persons, who, enlightened in other respects, have not sufficient courage to divorce themselves from the received prejudices.”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature

“I was brought up and remain an atheist. But to be brought up an atheist is very different from lapsing from religious faith. I’ve never had any religious faith. I have however a profound belief that, as a basis for ethical conduct, the Ten Commandments are pretty good, and that actually the monotheisms, and particularly Christianity, offer a really quite good guide as to how to live well.

By ‘well’ I mean to live morally. It’s very hard for an atheist to invent, from first principals, a good ethical basis for behavior, because actually in the natural state, human beings don’t behave well. They’re quite strongly tempted to behave badly. And we’re involved in ways that actually encourage bad behavior. We’re designed to kill strangers. We’re designed, in fact, to steal. And so it’s very important that there should be an ethical framework within which we live.

And my dilemma is that I don’t really believe in any divine policeman or any afterlife payoffs. But I do believe that we should live well. We should obey some moral code that we’re not likely to invent for ourselves.”

—Niall Ferguson[1]

I myself am undecided on this question, but I have a few things to say about it: 1) I support freedom of religion and oppose state atheism, partly because I think that the former is much better for atheism than the latter, and 2) in my view, a religious or philosophical viewpoint is only as “good” as its adherent. In other words, the outcome depends on the intelligence and character of the individual in question. If this is true of, say, Christianity, how much truer it is of atheism. Adherents of the former have doctrines and moral absolutes they can follow. Adherents of the latter are on their own.

Notes

[1] See “Niall Ferguson on Belief” on Big Think.

Atheism, Autism, and the Abstract Mind

By Jin-yeong Yi

Richard Feynman

From my notebooks:

Vox Day once wrote that atheism would be harmless if limited to an “abstract-minded elite.”[1] (He also claims that there is a correlation between atheism and autism[2], but I won’t go into that here.) I find this statement interesting, because it seems to imply that abstract-minded people tend to be atheists, or at least that there are many abstract-minded people who are atheists.

Indeed, a cursory survey of many great abstract-minded intellectuals throughout history appears to confirm this notion, or, rather, something close to it. I suspect that the most brilliant mathematical minds either believed in an impersonal God or no God at all. Descartes was a deist, or was at least accused of being one by Pascal[3]. Spinoza was a pantheist. Gauss was a deist. Leibniz was a theist, but apparently not far from deism (as he did not believe in miracles). One suspects the same of Newton. Pierre-Simon Laplace was an agnostic. Max Planck was a deist. Henri Poincaré, Alfred Tarski, Bertrand Russell, and W. V. Quine were atheists. Richard Feynman[4] was also an atheist, apparently a positive atheist at that. William James Sidis was supposedly an atheist from the age of 6. Albert Einstein has been called just about everything from an agnostic to a deist to a pantheist to an agnostic theist, but whatever he believed in, I think it’s probable that it was something without personhood. Stephen Hawking is an atheist, as is John Forbes Nash, Jr., Marvin Minsky, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Pinker. I’m sure many more examples can be named, such as Isaac Asimov (atheist), Mario Bunge (atheist), Ted Kaczynski (atheist), Daniel C. Dennett (atheist), and Christopher Langan (deist).

Even if it were false that the most brilliant mathematical minds were nontheists, the prevalence of this viewpoint seems significant enough to suggest a possible correlation between it and this type of intellectual makeup.

Notes

[1] See “The illogically optimistic atheist.”

[2] See “The socially autistic atheist.”

[3] From Pensées: “I cannot forgive [René] Descartes; in all his philosophy, Descartes did his best to dispense with God. But Descartes could not avoid prodding God to set the world in motion with a snap of his lordly fingers; after that, he had no more use for God.”

[4] From the divorce complaint of Feynman’s second wife: “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”