“The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence. Death becomes a mere rite of passage, like puberty or a midlife crisis.
“The gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendancy of skepticism and reason. No one can deny the difference between life and death or the existence of suffering, but it takes indoctrination to hold beliefs about what becomes of an immortal soul after it has parted company from the body.”
–Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011), p. 143. Continue reading →
“I cannot understand why we idle discussing religion. If we are honest—and scientists have to be—we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. Continue reading →
We do not know what awaits each of us after death, but we know that we will die. Clearly, it must be possible to live ethically—with a genuine concern for the happiness of other sentient beings—without presuming to know things about which we are patently ignorant. Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass on the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would anyone want to be anything but kind in the meantime?
— Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004)
Think about that the next time you’re in a crowd. For every single person you see, young or old, there will be one death, one funeral, one grave or ash-filled urn. I work on a university campus where most of the people I pass on the street are young and healthy—and in this context the thought is jarring. Continue reading →
“For we are free—free to suffer every anguish of deliberation, of decisions which must be made upon suspect information and half-knowledge, every anguish of hindsight and regret, of failure, shame and responsibility for all that we have brought upon ourselves and others: free to struggle, to starve, to demand from all one last, supreme effort to reach where we long to be and, once there, to conclude that it is not, after all, the right place.”
I’m reading Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson’s 1999 book that’s been described as the “ultimate geek novel.” Apropos of nothing, Stephenson begins a chapter with a surprisingly funny and concise summary of evolution. Enjoy: Continue reading →
As protests continue against “Innocence of Muslims” (which I wrote about in an earlier post, “On Blasphemy”), it’s worthwhile to remember an earlier Muslim attempt to stifle free speech through the threat of violence. Open Culture recently wrote about (and linked to) a 2010 BBC radio interview with Christopher Hitchens in which he talks about the 1989 Iranian fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie, who offended the delicate sensibilities of Muslims with his novel The Satanic Verses. Hitchens said: Continue reading →
By now there’s probably nothing new to say about Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment, so I won’t bother. Instead I want to look at the attitude behind it, which is one of the big dividing lines in American culture. And so naturally this leads me to The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 bestselling book about military test pilots and the Mercury space program.
The strange thing happened when I remembered the locust tree that stood in my front yard when I was growing up. I’m old enough to remember when that locust had smooth bark, and how over the years it began to split and roughen as the trunk gained girth.
So as I walked past the pine, suddenly I saw the patterns in the bark for what they were—evidence of the tree outgrowing its skin and literally bursting out of it. By mentally closing the crevasses I could imagine a smaller, smooth-barked tree in its place. I’ve walked past that tree hundreds of times, but now it felt like I’d never seen it before. Same thing with the other trees I passed on that walk. A simple realization—not particularly original or profound, and pretty obvious in hindsight—but it altered my perception and brightened my day. Continue reading →