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« Eye on I | Main | Real Life Poetry Top Five [by Michael Robbins] »

February 16, 2012


Couldn't agree more. Well put. Roger Williams would approve.

- Henry Gould, certified religious nut

Michael, you should perhaps read your brilliant, atheist co-blogger Jennifer Michael Hecht's wonderful history of doubt called, oh, gee, DOUBT: A HISTORY, before you make yourself look like an idiot again.

You must not have been very good at science, or, unfortunately, had poor science teachers, because doing good science means accepting doubt and perpetual mystery every day. Science isn't about answers, it's about asking questions. Over & over & over & over. (Incidentally, it's the same thing a good poet should do.)

Religion or god or spiritualism doesn't make people more open to the wonders of the universe than non-belief (in fact history shows the opposite).

So from this atheist, naturalist poet here's a hearty Fuck You right back.


Um... Amen, brother.

Snobs mind us off our own paths
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them.

and fuck the arrogant smirks of poets too.

respectfully, your fan

Alex, you haven't read the post. I wrote "It is always necessary to distinguish science from scientism" for a reason. Then there's the whole part where I said "this perplexity is, obviously, not confined to the religiously-minded."

So, I made yr points for you in the post. The post isn't about atheism, it's about a particular brand of atheism. Read what I wrote again.

I agree with most of what you say about science. Why would you post this comment when I clearly say I'm talking about scientism & about the New Atheism, in particular, and not about science & atheism per se??

As I said to the excitable alex c above: Why would you post this comment when I clearly say I'm talking about scientism & about the New Atheism, in particular, and not about science & atheism per se??

Did you have this in mind?

Oh my.

I'm not excitable, I take your point. I thought it was a fair response.

Still a fan, and enjoying these posts.

The fans are mutual, Sina. See you soon.

Atheists and Dawkin-pushers always ignore Eastern religions that are Atheist and the fact that Atheism is no different, conceptually, from Christianity.

More pseudo intellectualism...

Dear Michael: You're a bright guy and I have always admired your honest passion, but all I learned from this article was that Michael Robbins doesn't like the New Atheists. Refutation of philosophical argument is not made with invective and epithet. At times, you even seemed to attempt to create a hierarchy of atheist thinkers/writers, some good and others not. Belief is a privilege for the believer, just as dissent has its privileges. Better to have taken up the cudgel against Scientology, which is opportunism's revenge against religion. The truth is that the "atheists" are outnumbered, not because they are boring or can't make their case, or because their book is bankrupt, but because our political society seems to irrationally demand belief and punish disbelief. No one can prove God exists or doesn't exist. As Maimonides taught, God is too big a concept for man to understand, so much so, he said, that we can only conceive of God in what God is not. But in the U.S., ironies of ironies, the country that constitutionally separates church and state, seems totally bent on threading religious belief (Christian) through our elaborate scheme of civil rights. I cite the recent controversy over federal rights to insurance that embraces family planning. I would have preferred if you had discussed whether the case of atheism should be made more forcefully to purge this type of corruption from the political scheme. A lot of us struggle with the God-thing, and as you so eloquently proved, some of the greatest literature is born out of that struggle. However, literary achievements notwithstanding, let us keep our eye on the ball that as long as religion invests itself in politics, civil rights will be impaired.

Steven, you too are responding to a post I didn't write. The points you make about religious encroachment in politics are made daily by so many people that I don't see why I need to make them too. My post is about the attitude of contemporary liberal intellectual culture, which, as you well know, is not in the habit of "punishing disbelief." Christian literalism & scientology are soft targets, my friend. I'm not going to waste my time on them.

You fall into a common error that needs to be addressed, though. It is hardly only unbelievers who oppose religious intervention in politics, as you would know if you had read Robinson, Hart, & Eagleton. The point of linking to their work is to show that the opposition between belief & unbelief that you replicate from the New Atheists is a false one. I know plenty of believers who oppose the hysterical response to family planning you mention. So no, I definitely do no think the case for atheism needs to be made more forcefully to purge etc., since it is trivially true that religious believers are quite capable of wanting to purge such politico-religious corruption themselves. Or do you suppose all Christians want to live in a theocracy? Why is it hard to grasp that many Christians support the separation of church & state?

My purpose in this post was not to offer a philosophical refutation of anything. Hart & Johnston have already done that work. Read them. They might convince you that you don't need to lecture me about what balls to keep my eye on.

Oh Hey -- My Amen was directed at the post, not the comment above me which i had not read. Just to be perfectly crystal clear. Yow.

I eschew isms of all stripes. Just to be perfectly, crystal clear.

I think Michael's post is very well-written. And I also have very much enjoyed Jennifer Hecht's posts here. Alex, I happen to think your response post was God Damned Rude, and I'm not sure what you hoped to accomplish by going ad hominem all over Michael Robbins, who would have to get up pretty early in the morning to make himself look like an idiot. However, I'm glad to see people reading and bothering to respond whether it introduces additional questions, agrees or disagrees, critiques or criticizes or applauds (or I guess delivers a belittling suckerpunch out of the blue).

What Alex says is not wrong but as with all strident voices that insist on creating a dichotomy where there just plain fucking isn't one, I'm curious as to why he sees a vast dissimilarity between his own and Robbins' arguments. Smug atheists are every bit as intolerable as smug Bible-bangers, and most of us with a basic liberal arts education know that the peeling apart of "science" and "religion" is a fake-out, one that has had terrible consequences for some of the most fascinating western thinkers of the last several centuries (Galileo, Giordano Bruno come to mind) -- and has proved invigorating to the careers of others (Paracelsus, Swedenborg, Emerson?)

If you look at the dualism of spirituality and science in a longer-range historical context it becomes obvious that the fuck-you really should be shared by everyone from rene descartes to francis bacon to the spanish inquisition and the impartial but inexorable currents of history. They are not separate for some of us. Some of us see spirituality, mysticism, and poetry in science (I sure do) and experiment and hypothesis and urge-to-prove in organized religion. We've polarized them over time for mostly stupid, mostly political reasons.

Both religion and science are supposed to be about the questions, not the answers. There is no particular reason for them to be exclusive of each other, and each, when it starts to be about the answers, becomes Fucking Tiresome.

So Alex, did you have a question? Or just an answer?

Michael, with all due respect, I am a Jew and a lawyer, and I don't think you can lecture me on whether there is a large Christian population that wants to legislate belief, because in fact it does. It is not "trivially true" (again with the attitude) that a benign Christian religious segment is predominant in this country. I harken back to the last Bush era where the Attorney General was having prayer service in his office and where stem cell research was put on hold because it might be linked to abortion. The apparent Republican platforms are also empirical evidence of the fact that Christian dogma is being pushed and which will have profound impact on civil rights. If there is this big movement to purge religion from politics I don't see it. I haven't read Hart & Johnson, but I doubt that they can refute or prove anything when it comes to divine presence. Cf. Johnson on Descartes. I didn't mean to pick a fight, but it seemed to me that your main objection to the New Atheists was their cocksureness (you criticize their "attitude") rather than a healthy skepticism on the existence of God that you believe would be more appropriate. If the post was merely one of manners, it really did not read that way because of the way it matured into a condemnation of them, personally. Lastly, please don't condescend to your readers, who might be people who have to live and work in a world that you apparently do not.

Amen, Amy. I replied ad hominem to Alex via email, which is where that stuff belongs. Well, actually, I should have ignored it. I'm only human.

Maybe some of you would find interesting this letter to the editor of the Providence Journal which I sent today, in response to the farcical "Cranston high school prayer banner" kerfluffle we are having here in Rhode Island, of all places. (BTW, I mention my gr-gr-grandfather Zaccheus : he was fined by the gov't of Massachusetts once for "entertaining Quakers and Indians" in his home, and banished from church for a month. After that month passed, he returned dutifully to church (attendance required by law, at the time) - but insisted on sitting in his pew with his back to the pulpit.

Here's the letter I sent today :

"To the Editor :
Almost 400 years ago, Roger Williams founded Rhode Island on principles of religious tolerance and church-state separation. He had been banished from theocratic Massachusetts for challenging the government’s right to enforce particular religious practices. One of the most dramatic incidents stemming from his outspoken dissent took place when John Endecott, first governor of Massachusetts (and incidentally, next-door neighbor of my gr.-etc.-grandfather, Zaccheus Gould) – under the influence of Williams’ preaching – tore the image of the St. George cross out of the British flag, in protest against such abuse of the sacred on behalf of secular power. It was for incidents like this that Williams was sent into exile.
For Williams, any religious practice imposed by the coercive pressure of conformity and custom, or enforced upon persons by the power of the state, was already disqualified from the realm of true religion. Real faith was grounded in liberty : a person’s freedom of conscience to seek God, and the free will to practice a faith which their conscience found true. The ability of persons to stand upon such grounds was for Williams a matter of divine grace. To suggest that the state – or the mob – could impose belief from the outside, was the primal error in the world of his time, and a wrong which he lived to combat.
With these things in mind, we can be fairly confident about where Williams would stand regarding the controversy over the Cranston high school prayer banner. To the religious and political leaders who have inserted themselves into that debate, I think he might pose these questions : What is the substance of your faith? What is it about? What is more important to you – the freedom of the human mind and conscience, or your cherished symbols and objects (or should we say, idols)? What does Jesus in the Gospels tell you about prayer? He says, don’t go around praying loudly in public : such prayers are in vain. Rather, “Go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret; and your Father who hears in secret will listen to you.” In fact, Williams might suggest, ironically, that those who rate banners and objects more valuable than living at peace with one’s neighbors, are the ones who are truly irreligious.
We don’t know yet what the legal resolution to this controversy will be. But we can be pretty clear where the founder of our state would stand. He would say to the leaders and opinion-makers : ours is a government of each and every person. Each person in our state is endowed by the Creator with a free mind, with dignity of conscience. And no institution, sacred or secular, has the right to impose religious conformity in any way, shape or form. Sincerely, Henry Gould"

Sigh. Again I ask: WHO IS TALKING ABOUT "whether there is a large Christian population that wants to legislate belief"? Continue responding to imaginary posts I didn't write if you want to.

I live in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, brother. I know from Christian literalism, but I don't see that you do. You apparently have no experience with Christians on the left who oppose the legislation of belief. I mean, OK, that's fine. But that has nothing to do with their existence. Again, please have a look at Robinson. Please?

Where did I say—please point to where I said—"a benign Christian religious segment is predominant in this country." I'm asking you to respond to what I wrote, but you keep making things up.

Look, I agree with you about the Christian right. So does everyone else who reads this blog. So does everyone else I know. We're not talking about them. I. Am. Not. Talking. About. Them. Yr responses have been non sequiturs.

Of course I condemn the New Atheists. I never said the post was "one of manners." I said it wasn't meant to be a refutation.

And my condescension was obviously a response to your own. Keep my eye on the ball? Thanks, coach.

Where did I say there isn't "a large Christian population that wants to legislate belief"?

Where did I say "a benign Christian religious segment is predominant in this country"?

You keep responding to imaginary interlocutors. Non sequiturs are fun, but responding to them is boring.

Look, I live in Mississippi. You don't have to tell me about the Christian right. But my post. Was not. About. Them.

Can't make it any clearer.

You don't know anyone on the Christian left. OK. I'm sorry about that. They exist. Never said they made up a majority.

Done with this now.

... except to note that, yes, of course there are now hierarchies of atheism, some more intellectually respectable than others. Or rather, there always have been.

That's what the post is about, in fact.

Read the Hart article I link to, & Marilynne Robinson too. Not trying to claim "authority." They provide context that you would find useful.

In response to what you ACTUALLY wrote: Hell Yeah!
Thanks for an a well-written piece about the new atheists.

In my seminar we are reading Genesis this month, prior to "The Odyssey," in a logical movement that Erich Auerbach described in the first chapter of "Mimesis," so this stimulating post found me at a perfect moment. Thank you. I delighted in your saying that "Nietzsche would laugh at the idea that the human animal could free itself from delusion by seeking an ontological foundation in the natural sciences. Because the idea is laughable." Laughable, too, the attempt to locate divinity in the secular culture.
Genesis is politically incorrect, though it remains possible to read "the bible as literature" without losing sight of its scriptural claims. But God isn't very popular among the sophisticates. As one who believes in the Almighty I think that among poets I may be less unusual in holding the belief than in acknowledging it without prejudice. -- DL

I like that way of putting it, David. Thanks. I'm glad you liked the piece. What translation of Genesis are you using?

Btw, I might be a little late with my post tomorrow, I've got a long day of teaching. But I'll put something up.

We're using the King James Version, Michael, one year after its 400th anniversary.
Looking forward to your next post whenever it comes in. DL

Thank you, Kimberley!

Yes. The only translation really. Well except for Tyndale's. But it kind of is Tyndale's.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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