Sunday, January 28, 2007

Faith is a rope, tied between man and God - a rope over an abyss

On occasion I've wondered about the connection between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The SEP informs:
Kierkegaard's social realism, his deep psychological and philosophical analyses of contemporary problems, and his concern to address "the present age" were taken up by fellow Scandinavians Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Ibsen and Strindberg, together with Friedrich Nietzsche, became central icons of the modernism movement in Berlin in the 1890s. The Danish literary critic Georg Brandes was instrumental in conjoining these intellectual figures: he had given the first university lectures on Kierkegaard and on Nietzsche; he had promoted Kierkegaard's work to Nietzsche and to Strindberg; and he had put Strindberg in correspondence with Nietzsche.
Which leads me to wonder whether this striking image (from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra):
Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman --- a rope over an abyss.
...has anything to do with this one (from Kierkegaardian pseudonym Anti-Climacus' The Sickness Unto Death):
As a sinner man is separated from God by a yawning qualitative abyss.
That would be a disappointing adaptation. Compared to the original, Zarathustra's abyss is like a puddle in a gutter or a crack in the pavement. Silly Nietzsche.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The creation story of the Timaeus

In the Timaeus, Plato describes the fashioning of the universe (thought of as a living being) by the Creator:
...he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the centre, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures; for he considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike. This he finished off, making the surface smooth all around for many reasons; in the first place, because the living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.
So if you've ever wondered why the universe is perfectly spherical, or why it's lacking in eyes, ears, mouth, hands, and feet, there's your answer.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Islam and terrorism postscript

In response to my post on The "new atheism" and Islamic terrorists last week, Paul recently commented:
Damn, I wish I'd found this post earlier... now I'm relegated to making mostly unnoticed comments.
So they don't go unnoticed, here are those comments quoted in a new post:
Are there certain "Islamic" beliefs that enable suicide bombings? Short answer - yes. Most suicide bombers in the most recent campaigns (Iraq, Afghanistan, the Second Intifada, and Al Qaeda's jihad) really are motivated in crucial part by visions of a glorious afterlife. And the virgins thing, though almost certainly mistranslated, actually counts - the fools in the martyrdom videos are often damn near salivating over the prospect.

But it's ludicrous to say that this makes suicide bombing a uniquely Muslim phenomenon, or even a uniquely religious one. The now-marginal Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade subset of Fatah, for example, didn't claim explicit religious sanction for its bommbings like Hamas or Al Qaeda do. A far starker example would be the Tamil Tigers, who have never promised their human missiles a bountiful afterlife but have fielded (at last count) nearly 150 suicide bombers in Sri Lanka. For other examples, see the Japanese kamikaze pilots, the Jewish Zealots of the 1st century AD, or the Sikh bodyguards who assassinated Indira Gandhi. Or (shameless plug coming up) just peruse my M.A. thesis, when I get around to posting it on my blog.

That's not to say there aren't serious problems in Islam right now; there are. Chief among them is a disturbing legitimacy conferred, even by many 'moderate' Muslims, upon those who respond to perceived heresy with violence and collective punishment. But that's an argument for another day. In the meantime, speaking as a proud atheist, I've lost most of my once-substantial respect for Richard Dawkins, who now pursues his atheism with the characteristic snark and lack of intellectual rigour one typically expects from the most ardent religious fundamentalists.

One more thing: "'There are no atheists in foxholes' isn't an argument against atheism, it's an argument against foxholes." - James Morrow
I'm pretty much in agreement with all of that. Here are a couple of points in response, to make clear how very much I agree with all of that.

I hope the first paragraph there wasn't intended as a criticism, because I do of course recognize that a lot of Muslim terrorists think of their activities in terms of the concept of martyrdom (and also jihad). My point was that functional equivalents of those concepts aren't particularly difficult to come by. (I figure ideals of nationalism and generic heroism do just fine. The Tamil Tigers probably illustrate that.)

And as for other "serious problems in Islam", there are plenty of those: responses to heresy, responses to apostasy, the treatment of women, and so on. I take it there's a question here whether these are genuinely intrinsic to Islam, but I don't know enough about Islamic theology to comment on that. In any case, these problems (while far from trivial) are beside the point when it comes to the most hysterical fear-mongering about Islam (such as we find in Dawkins and Harris, and other bigots across the political and religious spectra), which declares that Islam could very well be responsible for the end of civilization, or whatever.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Bush's interview on 60 Minutes:
PELLEY: Do you think you owe the Iraqi people an apology for not doing a better job?

BUSH: That we didn't do a better job or they didn't do a better job?
OK, pause. He just willfully misheard that question. Apparently he actually thinks that there's a question whether the Iraqis should apologize to America for not doing a better job of... what? Not having their homes invaded and getting shot execution style in the street by armed militias? Not being kidnapped on the way to school? Not getting stopped at fake checkpoints, killed, and then dumped some place where their families never find them? Yeah, they really should stop having that happen to them. It's a big annoyance for Americans.
PELLEY: Well, that the United States did not do a better job in providing security after the invasion.

BUSH: Not at all. I am proud of the efforts we did. We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude, and I believe most Iraqis express that. I mean, the people understand that we've endured great sacrifice to help them. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq.
I... I... I don't think I know enough swear words to respond to that.

Dennett: the war discredits religion

I feel the need to get that Jesus-Boxer picture off of the top of the page, so I guess it's time for a new post.

Over at On Faith, Daniel Dennett answers the question of whether the invasion of Iraq constituted a just war. He spends most of his response giving the obvious answer, and then turns his attention to the role of religion in the move towards invasion:
Inflating these declarations [of good intent] with religious rhetoric about God being on our side is nothing less than obscene, however sincerely these protestations of faith may be uttered.
OK, so far so good. But Dennett continues:
Nothing has done more to discredit religious faith in recent years than the self-righteous overconfidence with which our leaders have “listened to God” instead of listening to the knowledgeable secular advisors who have warned them, repeatedly, of the follies they were embarking on.

Defenders of religion are eager to point out that the motivation for this war was not religious, in spite of President Bush’s blunder in calling it a “crusade,” but they must admit that the administration’s faith in faith over faith in facts has probably been the principle cause of the moral calamity that now confronts us.
I'm not sure where he got the idea that the decision to invade Iraq had anything to do with anyone thinking they'd "listened to God". The only relevant piece of evidence I can think of comes from this report:
According to Abbas, immediately thereafter Bush said: "God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East."
But this piece of testimony is pretty worthless, as was pointed out in Common Dreams (not an outfit known for its loyalty to Dubya):
Before you jump to any conclusions, remember that you are reading a translation of a translation of a translation. Mahmoud Abas does not speak English. Bush does not speak Arabic. If Bush said these words, or something like them, Abas heard them from a translator. Then Abas repeated them, as he remembered them a couple of weeks later, in Arabic. Some unknown person wrote down what he thought he heard Abas say. Then Regular, or someone at Ha'aretz, translated them back into English-or perhaps first into Hebrew and then into English.

Clearly, we don't yet know what Bush said, or why.
There is plenty of room to criticize the decision to go to war without basing criticisms on unsubstantiated hearsay.

Even if Bush did think that God had told him to invade Iraq, I doubt that Cheney or Rumsfeld or the other major figures in the Admin would ever have cared much about Bush's imagined conversations with God. It's true that the invasion was based in a kind of faith, but it was faith in a purely political fantasy (being greeted as liberators, democracy spreading throughout the region, etc.). What that has to do with religion is anyone's guess.

And even if religious claims had played some substantial role in the decision to go to war, it's mysterious how that could serve to "discredit religious faith" in general, as Dennett claims.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

More "Contemporary Christian Art"

First, "Undefeated":

The webpage for that one cites Psalm 136:12:
With a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
I'm not sure what that verse (which isn't even a complete sentence) has to do with this vision of Jesus as Boxer.

The title is a little odd, considering that Jesus was soundly defeated, what with all the getting betrayed and arrested and mocked and spat on and beaten and whipped and crucified and killed and all. True, there is a sense in which that defeat counts as a victory, but it's not any sort of victory relevant to the world of boxing.

Next, "If My People":

The webpage for that one is essential to understanding the meaning of the painting. It turns out that it is bristling with subtle visual metaphors. It truly is a wonder.

(both via JesusPolitics)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The "new atheism" and Islamic terrorists

I made a post about the "new atheism" and history, so I thought I might as well round it out with a post on how Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris think about some more recent events.

Anti-Muslim attitudes are hardly the exclusive province of the "new atheism", but you do find them there. (Naturally, I continue to leave Dennett out of this.) In support of the claim that religion is dangerous, the chief contemporary example is of course the 9/11 attacks, and associated terrorist attacks by Muslims. Somehow these attacks are supposed to be motivated adherence to Islamic principles.

Well, I think I mentioned this before, but, as far as I can tell, the motivations of terrorists and the reasons why Muslims tend to be angry at the West don't have much to do with specifically Islamic or specifically religious ideals.

Before I get into details, here's an interesting comparison. Can the Rwandan genocide, in which Hutu militias killed about a million people (mostly Tutsis, but some not) over the course of about a hundred days, be explained by reference to ideals inherent in Hutu religion or Hutu culture? Were there inherently violent Hutu ideals which helped motivate that insane slaughter? Well, no. The Hutu and Tutsi populations shared pretty much the same religious demographics, and there was no such thing as a specifically Hutu culture, or specifically Hutu ideals. But that didn't prove any obstacle to power-hungry Hutu demagogues.

With that in mind, let's consider the two common candidates for Islamic ideals especially responsible for terrorism by Muslims: jihad and martyrdom. Dawkins, for example, picked up these points a few days after 9/11, and has been waving them about ever since. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris follows suit and declares:
Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible
OK, let's see about that.


The standard view of jihad seems to be this. Jihad is primarily a spiritual struggle. I'm not sure, but some Muslims seem not to recognize violent forms of jihad at all. For those who do, though, violent jihad, jihad as holy war, isn't what some seem to think it is: you don't embark on a holy war just because some random nut says that Allah said so, or because you don't like non-Muslims. Rather, violent jihad is authorized by the Koran under specific circumstances: when Islam is facing violent persecution. That is, if an armed force is trying to wipe Islam off of the face of the earth, Muslims are warranted in coming together and fighting back in the name of Islam.

Three comments about this conception of jihad.

First, this isn't a view specific to "moderate" Muslims, but can be seen also in the arguments Islamic terrorists give in justification of their activities: a central premise is that Islam is under attack by America and its allies, Israel in particular. This is explicit in Bin Laden's 1998 fatwah declaring holy war, for example. He argues for holy war against America, and the two main premises of this argument are:
All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans [in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Israel] are a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims. And ulema have throughout Islamic history unanimously agreed that the jihad is an individual duty if the enemy destroys the Muslim countries.
Second, it's not hard to see how a demagogue like Bin Laden could make a convincing case for the claim that the West is violently persecuting Islam. Bin Laden referred to Western and Israeli military activity, and while the real motivations for that activity have little to do with the fact that the people in the area are predominantly Muslim, it probably wouldn't take much spin to create that perception. (In terms of religious persecution complexes, this one is infinitely more plausible than that of those Christians who imagine that they suffer political persecution here in America.) Once that's settled, add to it the fact that Muslims are seriously outgunned, and things can look grim for the future of Islam.

Finally, you don't need to be a Muslim to think that a violent response is warranted when violent persecution is threatening your very way of life. Quite the contrary: assuming it's at all possible to do so, it would be extraordinary for a people to refuse to respond violently in the face of that sort of threat. Such a refusal would require an uncompromising pacifism bordering on religious fervor, or a visionary or prophet showing a better way. (History records one occasion when the enlightened democratic West seemed genuinely threatened in its very way of life. The response involved Churchill firebombing German cities - civilians and all.)


As for martyrdom, the promises of virgins in the afterlife, or whatever, I can't see how that's relevant. For one thing, I can't imagine what difference it makes that the 9/11 terrorists perished in their own attacks; it hardly would have been an improvement if they'd managed to kill all those people while living to tell the tale.

The problem isn't that the 9/11 attackers died in their attacks; the problem is that they made the attacks at all. And the concept of martyrdom isn't necessary for the conclusion that Americans should be killed. If the concept of martyrdom plays any role at all, it's in... well, let's follow Bill Maher in being honest in our labeling: all a belief in martyrdom can explain is how these guys got so brave as to be willing to pilot planes into buildings while remaining in the planes. It doesn't explain why they accepted the cause of killing Americans, but maybe it could explain why they were willing to sacrifice their lives for that cause.

Is that right? Is it necessary to believe in the Muslim afterlife in order to do die for a cause, whatever it may be? Is it necessary to believe in any sort of afterlife? Not as far as I can tell. You might as well declare that there are no atheists in foxholes.

(It's an interesting asymmetry in the minds of many atheists of the anti-religious variety that they are entirely willing to implicate beliefs about the afterlife in the commission of evil acts, but reluctant to implicate such beliefs in the commission of good acts. Belief in the afterlife is not the least bit necessary to be willing to sacrifice oneself for a good cause, but it must play a crucial role in the willingness to sacrifice oneself for an evil cause.)

* * *

Now, I said that specifically Islamic ideals (the ones brought up above, at least) aren't really necessary to explain the motives underlying terrorism on the part of Muslims. That said, I think Islam does play a role. But it's the same role played by nationality or race in other conflicts: it's a source of group identity that can be exploited by demagogues under the right sorts of circumstances. As in the role played by "Hutu identity" in the Rwandan genocide, the content of that identity, or whether or not it even has any discernible content, isn't essential.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Noodles can go into space

From The Japan Times:
Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Food Products Co. and inventor of instant ramen, died of heart failure Friday evening at a hospital in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture, his family said. He was 96.

Born on March 5, 1910, in Taiwan, Ando initially ran clothing companies in Taipei and Osaka while he was a student at Ritsumeikan University. In 1948, he founded the precursor to Nissin and in 1958 unveiled Chicken Ramen, the world's first instant noodle product.

Ando was inspired to develop the instant noodle after coming upon a long line of people on a cold night shortly after World War II. They were waiting to buy freshly made ramen at a black market food stall.

The experience convinced him that "peace will come to the world when the people have enough to eat," according to Nissin.


In July 2005, Nissin introduced a vacuum packed instant noodle specially designed for Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to eat during a mission aboard the U.S. space shuttle Discovery.

Showcasing his Space Ram noodles, Ando said, "I'm happy I've realized my dream that noodles can go into space."
See also the in memoriam comic at PhD comics.

Eat a cup of noodles today. And be sure to slurp.

Friday, January 05, 2007

More happy fun pictures

See this here blog post.

The theme in that post is sexiness (oh, yeah) in fundamentalist art (oh, dear). But, apart from that, I was especially tickled by the painting entitled "Blessed Are the Peacemakers", which features what seems to be a knight from the Crusades.




(h/t JP)

The "new atheism" and history

Common to the recent anti-religious writings of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is (roughly) the following train of thought: (A) religion is irrational, and (B) tends to lead people to be irrational about pretty much everything, and so (C) tends to lead to violence.

Sometimes it seems that (C) is supposed to follow from the general principles of (A) and (B), in apriori-ish fashion. But of course concrete evidence is needed, and so usual suspects like the Crusades, the Inquisition, and, more recently, terrorist attacks by Muslims are trotted out.

Regarding the historical examples of supposedly religiously motivated violence, blogger Shannon Love criticizes Dawkins on the grounds that (let's say) his grasp of history lacks opposable thumbs. Love (an atheist, and former Dawkins admirer) notes that there was no non-religious world-view around back in the day, and remarks:
This leads to a form of confirmation bias on the part of atheists. They look into the distant past, see some actions we disapprove of in the modern world, notice that the people who chose the actions had a religious world view, and conclude that the religious world view caused the problem. However, since everybody in the distant past had a religious world view, and no significant decision makers until the very recent past had an atheistic world view, the fact that decision makers in the past were religious tells us about as much about them as the fact that they all breathed oxygen.
That last bit made me giggle.

There's further discussion about the Crusades and Inquisition, which I don't really know about, but it sounds good. She moves on to the modern era to consider some of the morally questionable political activities spawned by atheists, as well as the abolition of slavery and the establishment of welfare programs, where religious motivations seem to play a central role. None of these points really prove anything, but whatever. All the reviews of Dawkins and Harris that I've seen in major periodicals have turned out to be pretty unenlightening (whether they're pro or con), but this one's all right.

(A note of regret concerning the title. Because it's a catchy label, I've used "new atheism" to refer to Harris and Dawkins and their followers. Unfortunately, Daniel Dennett has also been lumped in with them under that category, despite the fact that he can actually navigate an argument and make decent conceptual distinctions, and proposes a critical look at religion without being anti-religious. I think he belongs in better company.)