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A Reading: Greatest Enemies

His aversion to religion, in the sense usually attached to the term, was of the same kind with that of Lucretius: he regarded it with the feelings due not to a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality: first, by setting up factitious excellencies — belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind — and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtue: but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals; making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful.

John Stuart Mill on his father

I have never, ever read such an apt and thorough description of my own judgment of religion (as moral evil and great enemy). I came upon this in chapter two of God is not Great by Christohper Hitchens, which, incidentally, I’m reading on my new Sony Reader which is just fabulous. For years I’ve said that paper books won’t have real competition until they come up with a display you can comfortably read in bed and never be interrupted by having to charge a battery. Well, you can and it’s here. You can travel with thousands of books (SD card) and can read about fifteen 500 page books between charges of the battery. It’s about the size and weight of a standard paperback novel. Fabulous. Direct outdoor sunlight just makes the display better, just like the page of a book.

I’ll be blogging more about Hitch’s new book. All indications, so
far, are that it’s in a whole different league from the other anti-god
tomes of late. It’s a very slow read: very literary and there’s just a
whole lot of meaning and implication on every page.

Oh, regarding that quote, a quick brush-up on Lucretius reveals:

The
main purpose of the work was to free men’s minds of superstition and
the fear of death. It achieves this through expounding the
philosophical system of Epicurus,
whom Lucretius apotheosizes. Lucretius identifies superstition with the
notion that the gods/supernatural powers created our world or interfere
with its operations in any way. Fear of such gods is banished by
showing that the operations of the world can be accounted for entirely
in terms of the regular but purposeless motions of tiny atoms and
agglomerations of atoms in interaction in empty space, instead of in
terms of the will of the gods. The fear of death is banished by showing
that death is the dissipation of a being’s material mind, and so, as a
simple ceasing-to-be, death can be neither good nor bad for this being.
The value of life for a being is something that only matters to this
being during its life. Fear of death is a projection of terrors
experienced in life, of pain that only a living (intact) mind can feel.
Lucretius also puts forward the ‘symmetry argument’ against the fear of
death. In it, he says that people who fear the prospect of eternal
non-existence after death should think back to the eternity of
non-existence before their birth, which they probably do not fear.

Consider
that he developed these notions some 50 years or more before the birth
of Christ. So: we’re at over two millenniums and counting of getting
stupider and stupider.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

16 Comments

  1. Kyle Bennett on May 13, 2007 at 00:07

    OK, you convinced me to get Hitchen's book. That's some amazing stuff that I'd never heard of.

    How's the selection of books on the e-reader? It looks like a great device. I'd looked into e-readers when they first started coming out, and gave up on them. I didn't know they'd finally come around.

    I would deeply regret the end of dead-tree books if it ever happens. Something about the tactile interaction with a book seems to actually matter somehow. There's some books I'd never want to read electronically, even if it was more convenient. And, no DRM.

  2. Richard Nikoley on May 13, 2007 at 08:36

    As I'm sure Shakespeare once said: "go fuck yourself," Sabotta.

    Besides, it's not like I'm the only one to say it. For example, here's an Amazon review from an adept and prolific reviewer:

    In the genre of athiest criticism of religion, Hitchens' book fills a niche. Where, for example, Bertrand Russel approaches religion with a philosophical mind, and Richard Dawkins approaches religion with a scientific mind, Hitchens approaches religion with a literary mind. This makes for some fresh and caustic athiest insights that you might not expect to find in either Russell or Dawkins. Hitchens, for example, begins his book by offering three quotes from classic pieces of literature, and within the first few pages he also alludes to George Eliot's "Middlemarch" without even mentioning Eliot's name (presuming his readers will know who wrote "Middlemarch"). In other words, Hitchens is a man of letters writing to educated, thoughtful people with more than a smattering of English literature classes in their background. In this sense, Hitchens, unlike Russell or Dawkins, leads his readers not just to think their way through the book's issues, but to feel them emotionally, in the way that one might feel one's way through a novel by Dostoevsky. Hitchens is always on the side of suffering individuals, and resists at every turn religion's dogmatism and "one size fits all" obtuseness. And in this sense Hitchens has hit upon an angle to come at religion that is not usually trodden: popular religion, unlike great literature, resists the tragic, the ambiguous, and the particular. Thus if you love literature, and identify with frail humanity via literature, you will resist the easy platitudes of religion. It is not just science and religion that are in tension for Hitchens, but literature and religion, or more accurately, the literary sensibility and religion.

  3. Richard Nikoley on May 13, 2007 at 08:47

    Literary.

    # of or relating to or characteristic of literature; "literary criticism"
    # knowledgeable about literature; "a literary style"
    # appropriate to literature rather than everyday speech or writing; "when trying to impress someone she spoke in an affected literary style"
    wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

    # Literature is literally "an acquaintance with letters" as in the first sense given in the Oxford English Dictionary (from the Latin littera meaning "an individual written character (letter)"). The term has generally come to identify a collection of texts. The word "literature" as a common noun can refer to any form of writing, such as essays or poetry; "Literature" as a proper noun refers to a whole body of literary work, world-wide or relating to a specific culture.
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary

    Yep. Precisely. And more.

  4. John Sabotta on May 13, 2007 at 02:56

    I'm glad that it's "very literary". Classy!

  5. Richard Nikoley on May 13, 2007 at 15:21

    So what's your point? That Hitchens is a murderer? Wow. Clever.

    I wouldn't call the reference to Dostoevsky a mistake. The reviewer is merely citing his own "feel" for a comparison. Obviously your mileage may vary.

    And neither was it my point or the point of that reviewer "that literature is dependent on either atheism or religious faith or dialectical materialism or the Volkisch community or whatever." Rather, the point is quite the opposite. Literature (to include religious literature), I'm sure you would agree, represents the most profound expression of the human condition in the context of the times in which it was created. And this is where Hitchens' work excels above the others because he understands — is indeed well versed — in the rich history of great literature and appears to have no problem whatsoever making the moral judgments he makes. And make no mistake: his judgments are moral ones.

    But I'm sure you'll keep ignoring all of this of course.

    I've got to say that I'm really taken aback by your profession of no respect (no, really!). That really surprises me and I just don't know if I'll be able to carry on.

  6. John Sabotta on May 13, 2007 at 13:18

    "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style" – V.Nabokov

    Your "able and prolific" reviewer is no doubt at least prolific, although he may have made a mistake in citing Dostoevsky. The notion that literature is dependent on either atheism or religious faith or dialectical materialism or the Volkisch community or whatever is sufficiently nekulturny and philistine on the face of it to require no furthur comment.

    But that there Wikipedia quote is sure impressive! Boy, is my face red!

  7. John Sabotta on May 13, 2007 at 17:27

    "It is not just science and religion that are in tension for Hitchens, but literature and religion, or more accurately, the literary sensibility and religion."

    I'm sorry – I wrongly assumed that this sentence meant something, but I can now see that with the use of the weasel-words "in tension" that it means nothing at all.

    (Further obsfucation is provided by the weird distinction between something your "able and prolific" reviewer is pleased to call "literary sensibility" and literature itself. Trying to sort this out would require furthur untangling of Mr. Able and Prolific's murky rhetoric, and this I decline to attempt.)

    It's all very classy, though.

  8. John Sabotta on May 13, 2007 at 13:52

    In any case, none of you, not Dawkins or Hitchens or you – have the bleak courage and honesty of a real atheist like Philip Larkin – and that's why I have no respect for any of you.

    (And yeah, he should have hooked up with Stevie Smith. "had her in the library stacks up at Hull." Hah!)

  9. John Sabotta on May 13, 2007 at 18:56

    Anybody interested in what a serious person has to say about these matters is directed to Church Going and High Windows

    Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
    The sun-comprehending glass,
    And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
    Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

    – Philip Larkin

    Or, I guess you could read what some journalist has to say on the subject. Your choice.

  10. Richard Nikoley on May 14, 2007 at 09:02

    "…and this I decline to attempt."

    Can you promise?

  11. Richard Nikoley on May 14, 2007 at 09:36

    Re: Larkin

    Those were both interesting, Sabotta. If it matters.

    Regarding the former:

    But superstition, like belief, must die,
    And what remains when disbelief has gone?
    Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

    …Death and despair nonsense, though. Nobody with any sense is criticizing belief, per se, which I loosely describe as the "awe of possibility." There are good distinctions to make between faith (what Hitchens describes as "belief in more and more based on less and less") and belief as I've described it. Moreover, I believe in man, idealized, not the imagined malevolent ghosts of his conscience on the practical "necessity" of scaring or dominating him into "greatness."

    And the latter:

    When I see a couple of kids
    And guess he's fucking her and she's
    Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
    I know this is paradise

    Yea, I suppose it's better that they be scared and/or sexually/physiologically dumbed down; into submission. Or they can just profess their purity to the pious whilst they go on fucking anyway. It's all the better than a rational conscience and knowledge.

    Somewhere between religion's primitive fantasy and Larkin's death and despair is the possibility of adult maturity, self-responsibility and the rational pursuit of happiness, wonderment, and achievement.

  12. Richard Nikoley on May 14, 2007 at 09:58

    Lopez:

    With the Sony, you can create bookmarks that are saved for future reference. I think there are some more advanced ones that you can annotate with a stylus. But, yea, there are trade offs. For me, I'm just plain running out of room (here and the cabin, both), and then there's the dilemma of what to take on a trip (I took a half-dozen books on my three-week trip to Europe last summer) — and then realizing you really (now!) want to read something you left behind. Now I'm gonna just take the whole library. There's also personal style. I like to be reading several books at once — always. And sometimes I'll lose interest in one for a few months and then pick it up again. I've taken years to read some books.

    Regarding religion/state, what I'm really attacking is the authority-following mechanism — the learned timidity — at the root of both and the lies required to keep them both propped up.

    And I do realize that it's "practicalities" that keep both healthy and strong. "Practicalities," that is, to the minds of believers in both.

    I've no doubt in the world that once it seems more profitable to Joe Shmoe to dump religion and state, he'll do so. But that's a tall order since the stock in trade for both is to offer that which can never be delivered upon; and an honest, rational, freedom-loving culture could never do that.

    Essentially, so long as people are suckers (and they mostly are) and fools (thousands born every minute) we're in for the long haul.

  13. John Lopez on May 13, 2007 at 21:41

    Ebooks:
    In anything other than casual, well-worn fiction (literally: I wear out certain books), the inability to make marginal notations is an absolute deal-ender. And for those, until the Ebook can tolerate the occasional drop in the tub…

    Religion:
    Evil or not, it's apparenlty served a purpose over the millennia. My suggestion to those who would rid themselves of it would be to look into what makes it stick around, and figure out how to change the incentives.

    Just like the existence of the State, come to think of it (not that I'm taking sides, mind).

  14. John Sabotta on May 14, 2007 at 09:13

    "Do the Mormons have my name? They've come to our house and I told them I don't believe in God and they laughed at me." – 15yr old daughter of friend.

    I long for the Person from Porlock
    To bring my thoughts to an end
    I am becoming impatient to see him
    I think of him as a friend

    Often I look out of the window
    Often I run to the gate
    I think, He will come this evening
    I think it is rather late.

    I am hungry to be interrupted
    For ever and ever amen
    O Person from Porlock come quickly
    And bring my thoughts to an end.

    – Stevie Smith, Thoughts on the Person from Porlock."

  15. John Sabotta on May 14, 2007 at 09:28

    Also (from the Wikipedia article on Stevie Smith, who I have fallen in love with)

    "Death fascinated her and is the subject of many of her poems. When suffering from the depression to which she was subject all her life, she was so consoled by the thought of death as a release that as she put it, she did not have to commit suicide."

  16. John Lopez on May 15, 2007 at 23:19

    …and then realizing you really (now!) want to read something you left behind.

    That is handy.

    For the rest, yes, we're in for the long haul. (Mainly I was trying to bait Sabotta, of course).

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