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On the Wings
of a Dove
by Nicolas Humphrey
from his book Leaps of Faith


What it comes down to is the fact of our inescapable embodiedness. "'I am body and soul' -- so speaks the child," Nietzsche wrote. "And why should one not speak like children. But the awakened, the enlightened man says: I am body entirely, and nothing beside; soul is only a word for something in the body... You say 'I' and you are proud of this work. But greater than this -- though you will not believe it -- is your body with its great intelligence, which does not say 'I' but performs 'I'... Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, stands a mighty commander, an unknown sage -- he is called Self. He lives in your body, he is your body." (Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. Hollingdale, p. 61)

Early in this book, I outlined what I imagined to be people's greatest misgivings about materialism -- especially the "materialism of the strictest order," the idea of which reduced Elizabeth Barrett to a state of "resistless melancholy." "It would mean subscribing to the thesis," I suggested, "That every influence we have upon the outside world has to begin with physical changes occurring at our body surfaces... That any further impression we have on our surroundings can only be a secondary effect of these poor causes. That when and if our bodily activity is inadequate to have the secondary effects we may desire, there is precious little we can do about it. That we can achieve nothing at all external to us by means of purely inner unexpressed mentation. That thoughts without causally sufficient action by the body must inevitably fail in their ambitions. That we have no magic powers. That prayer and spells are ineffective..." And so on.

Does it matter if, as the analysis of the last chapters seems to show, this nightmare characterization turns out to be in all essentials true? That Nietzsche was right? That we really are body entirely and nothing beside? And that the soul, being only a word for something in the body, is in effect a word for no soul worth the name?

Whichever way we look at it, it seems it does matter. The least that people have needed to keep them from despair has been, I argued, the assurance that "where we are going" will not necessarily be so bad as we might fear, because "what we are" is not so deficient as we might otherwise have thought. But now we have no grounds for even this modest optimism. Now we may have to accept that "where we are going" is almost certain to be quite as bad as we might fear, because "what we are" has turned out to be quite as deficient as we thought -- if not worse.

We heard Bertrand Russell earlier: "Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be built." For those who have always hoped for better, this is bound to take some getting used to.

If, at last, we are to rebel against this conclusion, it is clear we shall have to adopt a more assertive, less pessimistic and less apologetic attitude to the truths we have uncovered.

Perhaps, instead of meekly assuming that the world we live in is so much poorer a place than we should have liked, our lives so much less meaningful and our prospects so much less promising, we shall have to try to show that the real world -- a world without soul-power -- is after all unsurpassably rich, and that the alternative world -- the world with soul-power -- would have been nothing more than a snare and a delusion. Perhaps, instead of pining for our lost souls and absent psychic powers, we will have to begin to take pride and pleasure in the facts of our embodiment, our morality and individuality.

To do so will of course mean undergoing a revolution in our typically obsequious attitude toward the paranormal: the attitude of "even if it isn't true, I wish it were." We shall have to stop conceding, as many skeptics -- myself, as you saw earlier, included -- have been prone to do, that people require the promise of the paranormal to make sense of their lives. We shall need to distance ourselves from all those beautiful lamentations about humanity's sad plight: the elegiac cries for mercy of Pascal, the existential cynicisms of Camus or Monod, the puritanical asceticism of Russell. We shall have to banish the very idea that "it would be pretty to think otherwise." Our purpose, instead, must be to show not only that in the last analysis it is the normal world and not the paranormal one that has all the best tunes, but that the paranormal world would in reality not be pretty in the least -- certainly the end of life as we know it, and very possibly unable to support life from the beginning.

Can a position like this -- one which so firmly rejects not only the reality but the dream of the paranormal -- be taken seriously? I think this is the position to which all our best understanding of nature tends. And though it would take another book to spell out the full reasons, I can here at least give some pointers to them. Pointers, that is, as to why our material bodiliness and limited longevity provide not so much a constraint on what we can achieve and experience, as the essential condition for our being able to achieve or experience anything at all.

To follow me in this, you will have to grant one basic premise. This is that the evolution of life on Earth -- and all that we hold dear about ourselves as living beings -- has depended primarily on the free play of a simple creative principle: namely, the process of natural selection described by Darwin. Even though there are still some who find it hard to accept that natural selection can have been the whole story behind all the variety and organized complexity of the living world, you must agree that it has at least played an essential role.

The crucial question then becomes: what are the necessary conditions for natural selection to occur? And the answer to which I would now draw attention is that one of these conditions has always been that living organisms should be highly discrete in the way they go about things. Discrete, that is, in all the meanings of the word. Spatially discrete, with each organism occupying its own physically distinct body; temporally discrete, with each having a limited lifespan with a clear beginning and end; informationally and intentionally discrete -- and even discreet -- with each following a more or less independent life-path in pursuit of its own private goals.

The reason is simply that natural selection depends on competition between individuals, and such competition has always required a large degree of independence and separate development. In the struggle for survival that takes place between the members of an evolving population every one is ultimately a rival to most if not all others, and progress results from the victory of certain individuals over others. Each of the myriads

of variant organisms, that are continually being invented by mutation and recombination of genes, and then pitted against its peers in the struggle for survival, constitutes a new experiment. And for selection to work its magic, each has to be given the chance to prove itself independently, by what it is able to make of its own brief life by its own efforts. There must be no blurring of spatio-temporal boundaries, no confusion as to where individual bodies or individual lives begin and end.

Indeed, similar principles apply to social and cultural evolution. In the world of competing ideas no less than in the world of bodies and genes separate development is essential to success: independency and solitude are the schools of genius, privacy is needed to shelter the tender shoots of innovation, virgin minds are the seedbeds of originality. "Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend" was never merely a Maoist slogan. Mao's point, like Darwin's, was that natural selection can only be effective provided that each of the hundred flowers is allowed the opportunity to bloom in its own fashion, each of the hundred schools of thought given the space to mature in its own way. Provided too that, when each flower or school has undergone its test of fitness and proved itself more or less successful, there is the opportunity for new generations to take the field and start over again. Although some sharing may be compatible with ongoing selection, there must be no merging of flowers or of schools into one common blossom or common ideology (however perfect at the time it seems to be).

In general, separateness, mortality and renewal have always been the friends of evolutionary progress. The corollary is that universality, immortality and persistency could have only been its enemies.

The strong implication has to be that it is only in a world where it has been practicable for living things to maintain and defend the physical, temporal and spiritual boundaries of their minds and bodies, that all the beauty and variety of life and culture could have come into existence. Which means in effect that it could only have happened in a world with normal laws. For it is precisely these defenses that paranormal forces -- if they existed -- would undo.

Such a conclusion is no doubt somewhat daunting. It is not always easy to be an individual. There are probably times when each of us finds it absurd that we do in fact have the boundaries that we do: that we have been fated to live here rather than there, now rather than then, in this body rather than another.

There are times, perhaps, when we would prefer to have no individuality at all, wishing, like Hamlet, that "this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew." (I, ii, 129) Or other times when, better still, we would aspire to include all other individualities within our own, enlarging our interests until, as Thomas Traherne envisioned it, "the sea itself floweth in our veins, till we are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive ourselves to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as we." (Centuries of Meditation, i, 29) Even Bertrand Russell came to the view in his old age that "the best way to overcome [the fear of death] is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life."

The prospect of this kind of psychic redintegration is undeniably seductive -- warm, humane, open, ecologically correct. It conjures up the idea of a return to the enveloping womb, to the human and physical environment where it once seemed we were placentally connected to the universe at large. Yet we should, I think, be thankful that it never was and never will be so. For the consequences would not at all be those for which we fondly hope.

The very word life comes from the Old German Leib meaning body. Universal life, bodiless life, would be no life at all. And by the same token universal mind would be no mind. If our thoughts and actions were to wash around the universe in some great psychic field, there would be nothing left for us to be.

What we make of the world as it really exists depends on how we look at it. We can be the optimist who brightly says, "This is the best of all possible worlds," or the pessimist who gloomily nods his head and says, "How true."

Elizabeth Barrett's friend Miss Bayley was "calm and resigned" in the face of her conclusions about the truth of materialism. But resignation, sad resignation, is too passive (I almost want to say too ungrateful) an attitude to have toward the laws of nature which have permitted the creation of our world.

We can choose instead to see these laws not as imprisoning but liberating and empowering. For Lenin, "Freedom is the recognition of necessity." For Igor Stravinsky, writing about musical composition, but no less about life in general, "My freedom will be so much greater and more meaningful the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength." (The Poetics of Music, p. 62) But it was Immanuel Kant who found the perfect image for the empowering effect of the bodily and mental limitations that nature has imposed upon us, and the futility of trying to escape them: "The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space." (Critique of Pure Reason, 2d ed., trans. Smith, p. 47)

There is a painting by Joseph Wright in London's National Gallery, titled Experiment with an Airpump, that shows precisely the plight of a light dove in empty space (the painting, made in 1768, predates Kant's metaphor). The bewildered bird (a white cockatoo?) is gasping for breath in an evacuated glass jar, its wings useless by its side, while the experimenter and his family -- in varying degrees of disbelief and shock -- look on.

The painting is generally regarded as having been intended as a commentary on the scientific Enlightenment. But I suggest we might more pointedly take it to be a picture of the vanity of the paradise promised by religion and the paranormal. For it is they, not science, which if they had their way would pump from the world the elements on which life has taken wing. They, not science, which by blurring the distinction between life and death, destroying the grounding of one mind in one body, confusing issues of personal responsibility, and undermining privacy, would rob the world of the oxygen of individuality on which all things bright and beautiful -- natural and cultural -- have relied for their creative energy.

It's not just that we have no need of the hypothesis. It is that we probably would not be here if it were true.

Graphic Rule

 

Solidification
and Isolation:

How Biblical Faith
Protects Itself From Critics
by C. Dennis McKinsey
-- from his 1995 book The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy
originally called "Closed-Mindedness" from chapter 23
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(Quotes: Today's English Version -- "Good News for Modern Man")

Any philosophy, theory, or ideology that is based essentially on faith, irrationality, and blind obedience to unsubstantiated allegations, propositions, and promises is bound to be highly vulnerable to criticism and attack. The contentions of people who rely more on faith than reason, belief than proof, compliance than criticism, superstition than science will always be subject to refutation and disproof.

Key elements in the New Testament's response to this problem are solidification and isolation. Adherents are to be made so determined in their faith that no amount of contradictory evidence will loosen their resolve. The attitude the New Testament seeks to create is, "I don't care what evidence exists to prove that various phenomena or precepts in the New Testament are fraudulent and the work is essentially an indoctrinating tool wielded by a dominant group, if the Bible says it, then it must be true." Once this outlook is inculcated, the door has slammed shut to any further dialogue. Reasoning is no longer of any use, Jesus has taken over.

Solidification works best through isolation. Believers are warned to refrain from argumentation and disputation with critics and nonbelievers. The latter are to be considered misguided and that's that. Don't listen to them is the message of Col. 2:4: ("Do not let anyone deceive you with false arguments, no matter how good they seem to be"); I Tim. 6:20-21: ("Avoid the profane talk and foolish arguments of what some people wrongly call 'knowledge'"); II Tim. 2:23-24: ("But keep away from foolish and ignorant arguments; you know that they end up in quarrels."); and Titus 3:9-10: ("But avoid stupid arguments, quarrels, and fights about the Law. They are useless and worthless. Give at least two warnings to the person who causes divisions, and then have nothing more to do with him").

Even the most rational, logical, peaceful, thoroughly researched discussions are to be avoided because they supposedly create nothing more than quarrels and fights. This has been the time-honored approach of demagogues for centuries -- indoctrinate and isolate, isolate and indoctrinate. The real reason arguments are to be shunned is that Christian teachings cannot withstand rational analysis and believers are liable to be swayed by it.

It is strictly taboo for believers to criticize or test what they are told, according to Matt. 4:7 ("Do not put the Lord your God to the test") and Rom. 9:20 ("But who are you, my friend, to talk back to God? A clay pot does not ask the man who made it, 'Why did you make me like this?'").

Mark 11:27-33 relates a story in which Jesus is asked, "What right do you have to do these things? Who gave you such a right?" Jesus replies that if they will answer his question, he will answer theirs. His question is too difficult for them, so he closes by saying, "Neither will I tell you, then, by what right I do these things." In other words, don't question Christ's authority. He isn't obligated to reply.

Testing is not needed, since by some mysterious process the alleged truth of Christianity will be shown to believers. Luke 7:35 says, "God's wisdom, however, is shown to be true by all who accept it," and I John 2:27 says, "As long as his Spirit remains in you, you do not need anyone to teach you. For his Spirit teaches you about everything, and what he teaches is true, not false."

As far as scriptural teachings are concerned, it is virtually impossible for a critic, analyst, or observer to be honest, sincere, and well-meaning. The New Testament depicts him as a cunning, deceitful, hypocritical trickster consciously or unconsciously leading unwary Christians down the rose-lined path to destruction. Proving the contrary is ruled out from the beginning. Here, more than anywhere else, the New Testament propounds the ultimate in closed-mindedness. To cast suspicion on all those who question the accuracy of biblical beliefs by depicting them as false prophets and deceivers is the ultimate in misrepresentation. Although not directly stated, the New Testament has given its adherents the impression that any and all critics are frauds bent on misleading the unwary.

The following verses bear this out Matt. 7:15: ("Be on your guard against false prophets; they come to you looking like sheep on the outside, but on the inside they are really like wild wolves"); Matt. 24:11: ("Then many false prophets will appear and fool many people"); Matt. 24:24-26: ("False Messiahs and false prophets will appear, they will perform great miracles and wonders in order to deceive even God's chosen people, if possible"); II Peter 2:13: ("False prophets appeared in the past among the people, and in the same way false teachers will appear among you. They will bring in destructive, untrue doctrines"); and I Tim. 6:3-4: ("Whoever teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the true words of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching of our religion is swollen with pride and knows nothing. He has an unhealthy desire to argue and quarrel about words").

When the amount of facts, data, and evidence tending to invalidate Christian beliefs becomes overwhelming, the ultimate in isolation techniques is employed. Believers are assured they possess a secret truth incomprehensible to outsiders. Although a mountain of evidence may exist to prove that following Jesus involves a deceptive, masochistic form of self-torture that only benefits those in charge, biblicists are told to ignore reality and view critics as hopeless devil-agents incapable of understanding the higher "truth." In essence, the New Testament's message is, "Forget what reality says, listen to what I say. Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?"

Relevant verses are I Cor. 2:6-7: ("Yet I do proclaim a message of wisdom to those who are spiritually mature. But it is not the wisdom that belongs to this world, or to the powers that rule this world.... The wisdom I proclaim is God's secret wisdom, hidden from mankind"); I Cor. 2:13-14: ("So then, we do not speak in words taught by human wisdom.... Whoever does not have the Spirit cannot receive the gifts that come from God's Spirit. Such a person really does not understand them; they are nonsense to him, because their value can be judged only on a spiritual basis"); I Cor. 1:20-21: ("God has shown that this world's wisdom is foolishness! For God in his wisdom made it impossible for men to know him by means of their own wisdom. Instead, by means of the so-called foolish message we preach, God decided to save those who believe"); I Cor. 1:27: ("God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and he chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful"); I Cor. 3:18-20: ("If anyone among you thinks that he is wise by this world's standards, he should become a fool, in order to be really wise. For what this world considers to be wisdom is nonsense in God's sight.... God traps the wise in their cleverness.... The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are worthless"); I Cor. 4:10: ("For Christ's sake we are fools; but you are wise in union with Christ!").

Again the New Testament manages to turn ominous defeat into partial victory. Contradictory data is portrayed as a test of the believer's faith. The more out-of-tune with reality Christianity becomes, the greater the test and ultimate reward Teaching an individual to "become a fool in order to become wise" ranks with the ultimate in indoctrination. If this isn't a black-is-white approach, what is? The lengths to which the elite will go to generate support are truly awesome.

 

Note: I typed this up by hand in order to bring its perspective to discussions held by the Positive Atheism project's readership, and our posting of this work is legal and morally legitimate. If you would like to have material such as this on your web site, do your own e-text conversion work! OCR work, typing, editing, proofreading, and other tasks involved in the conversion of print media to e-text carry a monetary value. When you take what I converted from my web site and post it on your own, you steal money from me! Do not copy my work for your web site! I watermark all of my work and if I see my work on your web site, I will pursue it.

 

 

Graphic Rule

The Biblical Position
On Women
by Dennis McKinsey
-- from the Biblical Errancy newsletter
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Any discussion of bondage and the Bible would be remiss if the Biblical role outlined for women was omitted. In both the Old and New Testaments women are assigned a position not appreciably different from that of domestic servants. Their status is demeaning, debilitating, and wholly incompatible with self-respect and confidence. Except for Mary, Eve, Ruth, Sarah, Rachel, and a few lesser figures, few biblical women have roles of significance and even fewer are worthy of emulation.

Eve, for example, is blamed for the creation of Original Sin. The Bible says as much: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner" (1 Tim 2:12-14, NIV). Is it any wonder that women's groups oppose this narrative. With his usual wit Ingersoll once observed: "... nearly every religion has accounted for all the devilment in this world by the crime of woman. What a gallant thing that is! And if it is true, I had rather live with the woman I love in a world full of trouble, than to live in heaven with nothing but men" ("Ingersoll's Works": Vol. I, p. 358). One of the saddest and most perplexing dilemmas one can experience in modern society is confronting women who strongly believe and defend a book that so clearly assigns them a degrading and subservient status. How do you reach those who are defending a philosophy that is so totally opposed to their interests.

To use the vernacular, the Bible is sexist and permeated with male supremacy, as the following verses show only too well: "...and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" (Gen 3:16). "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man..." (1 Cor 11:3). "Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man" (1 Cor 11:9). "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husband, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife... therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husband in every thing" (Eph 5:22-24).

Anyone desiring more proof should read: Deut 21:10-14, 24:1-4; Judges 5:30; Esther 1:20-22; Rom 7:2; 1 Col 3:18; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Peter 3:1; Lev 12:2, 5; Gen 3:20. If these are not sufficient there are more. The evidence is overwhelming. Apologists try to softpedal the entire mater, but facts are stubborn things. It isn't just Paul but the entire Bible that's guilty. Is it any wonder that feminist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, once said: "The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of woman's emancipation" ("Free Thought Magazine": Vol. 14, 1896). And she also said, "I know of no other book that so fully teaches the subjection and degradation of women" ("Eight Years and More," Elizabeth Cady Stanton, p. 395).

Not to be outdone Ingersoll again displayed his wisdom by saying: "...it [the Bible] is not the friend of woman. They will find that the writers of that book, for the most part, speak of woman as a poor beast of burden, a serf, a drudge, a kind of necessary evil -- as mere property" ("Ingersoll's Works", Vol. 12, p. 43). "As long as woman regards the Bible as the charter of her rights, she will be the slave of man. The Bible was not written by a woman. Within its lids there is nothing but humiliation and shame for her. She is regarded as the property of man... She is as much below her husband, as her husband is below Christ" ("Ingersoll's Works", Vol. I, p. 396). But, perhaps, George Foote made the most poignant comment of all: "It will be the proud boast of woman that she never contributed a line to the Bible."

 

Note: I typed this up by hand in order to bring its perspective to discussions held by the Positive Atheism project's readership, and our posting of this work is legal and morally legitimate. If you would like to have material such as this on your web site, do your own e-text conversion work! OCR work, typing, editing, proofreading, and other tasks involved in the conversion of print media to e-text carry a monetary value. When you take what I converted from my web site and post it on your own, you steal money from me! Do not copy my work for your web site! I watermark all of my work and if I see my work on your web site, I will pursue it.

 

Graphic Rule