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American Atheists Inc.

is a nonprofit, nonpolitical, educational organization dedicated to the complete and absolute separation of state
and church, accepting the explanation
of Thomas Jefferson that the First
Amendment to the Constitution of the
United States was meant to create a
"wall of separation" between state and
church.
American Atheists is organized
to stimulate and promote freedom of thought and inquiry concerning religious beliefs, creeds, dogmas,
tenets, rituals, and practices;
to collect and disseminate information, data, and literature on all
religions and promote a more thorough understanding ofthem, their origins, and their histories;
to advocate, labor for, and promote in all lawful ways the complete
and absolute separation of state and
church;
to act as a "watch dog" to challenge any attempted breach of the
wall of separatrion between state and
church;
to advocate, labor for, and promote in all lawful ways the establishment and maintenance of a thoroughly secular system of education available to all;

outlook verifiable by experience and


the scientific method, independent of
all arbitrary assumptions of authority
and creeds. An Atheist is free of belief
in supernatural entities of all kinds.
Materialism declares that the cosmos is devoid of immanent conscious
purpose; that it is governed by its own
inherent, immutable, and impersonal
laws; that there is no supernatural
interference
in human
life; that
humankind - finding their resources
within themselves - can and must create their own destiny. Materialism
restores
dignity
and intellectual
integrity to humanity. It teaches that
we must prize our life on earth and
strive always to improve it. It holds
that humans are capable of creating a
social system based on reason and justice. Materialism's
"faith"
is in
humankind and their ability to transform the world culture by their own
efforts. This is a commitment which is
in its very essence life-asserting. It
considers the struggle for progress as
a moral obligation that is impossible
without noble ideas that inspire us to
bold, creative works. Materialism
holds that our potential for good and
more fulfilling cultural development
is, for all practical purposes, unlimited.

to encourage the development


and public acceptance of a humane
ethical system stressing the mutual
sympathy, understanding, and interdependence of all people and the corresponding responsibility of each individual in relation to society;
to develop and propagate a
social philosophy in which humankind
is central and must itself be the
source of strength,
progress, and
ideals for the well-being and happiness of humanity;
to promote the study of the arts
and sciences and of all problems
affecting the maintenance, perpetuation, and enrichment of human (and
other) life; and
to engage in such social, educational, legal, and cultural activity as
will be useful and beneficial to members of American Atheists and to society as a whole.
Atheism is the Weltanschauung
(comprehensive
conception of the
world) of persons who are free from
theism - i.e., free from religion. It is
predicated
on
ancient
Greek
Materialism.
Atheism involves the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the
supremacy of reason and aims at
establishing a life-style and ethical

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All membership categories receive our monthly American Atheist Newsletter, membership cardts), and additional
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American Atheists Inc. P.O. Box 5733 Parsippany, NJ 07054-6733


(908) 276-7300 FAX: (908) 276-7402 E-mail: info@atheists.org
Website: http://www.atheists.org
American Atheist on-line edition: www.americanatheist.org

American
A Journal

of Atheist

Winter 2001-2002

Atheist

Vardis Fisher: An American and


Atheist Novelist on the History of
Religious Ideas PART VI
35
Earl Doherty
The author of The Jesus Puzzle con-

News and Thought


EDITOR'SDESK
The Promise of Cloning
vs. the Curse of Christ
Frank R. Zindler

Russian Atheists Petition


Government
4
Translated by Mark R. Hatlie
An Atheist's Guide to
Mohammedanism
Frank R. Zindler

cludes his review of the monumental


20th-century work THE TESTAMENT OF
MAN, examining the novels Peace Like
A River and My Holy Satan.

The Devil Made Me Do It

39

A critical examination of the origins


ofthe Qur'an, the problem of the historical Mohammed, and the threat to
civilization posed by Islam.

A Message From France


Roger Lepeix

Cover Art: The Winter Solstice at


Stonehenge, by Ann Zindler.
Christmas originally fell on the winter
solstice, which marked the birthdays of
solar deities such as Krishna, Jesus, and
Mithra. The Nativity Madonna-andChild image was copied from Egyptian
statues of Isis with the infant Horus.
Gift-giving a la Santa Claus was customary in ancient solstice celebrations and
the practice survives today. Hanukkah is
an attempt to adapt a lunar religious calendar to incorporate a solar festival.
Crosses and anchors represent the position of the sun at the equinoxes, the
celestial points where the celestial equator intersects the ecliptic - the apparent
path of the sun and planets across the
sky. The Christian fish symbol commemorates the birth of a "New Age Religion,"
when the vernal equinox moved from
Aries into Pisces at the start of the
Common Era.

19

The President of the French Free


Thought National Federation addresses the 27th National Convention of
American Atheists.

American Atheist Interview with


William B. Davis
22
Conrad F. Goeringer
A scientifically savvy actor from
The X-Files gives his skeptical opinions on the paranormal as well as
more important subjects.

Emily Dickinson:
Pagan Sphinx
Gary Sloan

26

Whatever her innermost religious


identity may have been, this reclusive
poet most certainly was not a
Christian.

Sublime Hatred: Nietzsche's


Anti-Christianity
Jason DeBoer

29

Nietzsche didn't waste time arguing


about the existence of gods. He went
straight for the jugular vein of
Christianity.

WiseMter The Event


Margaret Bhatty

32

Volume 40, No.1

Our Indian correspondent amuses


us with her report on Vaastu Shastra,
the Vedic 'science' of architecture.

Parsippany, New Jersey

Winter 2001-2002

Kevin Courcey
A review of So Help Me God:

Substance Abuse, Religion and


Spirituality, from The National
Center on Addiction and Substance
Abuse at Columbia University.

Dying An Atheist In America


Chris Morton

43

The American Atheists' Director for


New York State warns of the religious
as well as financial pitfalls that dying
Atheists need to avoid.

I Dreamt the World


WasSquare
Francis Seth Dudley

46

An elaboration of Plato's allegory of


the cave takes on a rather fanciful
form.

Reasoning With the


Unreasonable
Paul Kondon

49

A speech given before a Detroit


Regional Atheists Meet in November
of 2001 by a past-president of the
Atheist Society at Western Michigan
University.

Page 1

American
Atheist
Volume 40 Number

Membership Application for


American Atheists Inc.
1

EDITOR / MANAGING EDITOR


Frank R. Zindler
ASSOCIATE EDITOR
Ann E. Zindler
CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
Conrad F. Goeringer
BUSINESS MANAGER
Ellen Johnson
The American Atheist is published by
American Atheist Press four times a
year, in December, March, June, and
September.
Printed in the USA, 2002 by American
Atheist Press. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without
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Page 2

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American Atheists Inc., P.O. Box 5733


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Telephone: (908) 276-7300 FAX: (908) 276-7402
E-mail: editor@atheists.org
Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

Editor's Desk

The Promise of Cloning


versus

the Curse of Christ

corns are not oak trees, and


toasting them is not the same
thing as starting a forest fire. It
is a pity that the Russian Orthodox
Church's leaders do not understand
that simple fact of life. Without a pope
of their own, but with the pope in Rome
in full agreement, they have pontificated that the death of the recently cloned
six-celled human embryo is "tantamount to murder." With members of
Congress chorusing "Amen," few have
seen the irrationality of the charge.
To have a murder, you have to have
a person. How can a tiny clump of cells
be confused with a person? Even according to religious views, there would have
to be a soul in that ball of cells for it to
be a person. According to the unscientific
views of the churches, souls enter a
zygote only after a sperm fuses with an
egg. No sperms are involved in cloning.
Certainly, then, there was no soul in the
test-tube that cultured that clone. Even
by religious logic, there could be no
murder in such a case.
So why are religious leaders and
politicians so upset about cloning that
they want to outlaw the procedure and
halt the most promising
medical
research in history? Cloning shows very
dramatically that the religious notion of
souls and spirits is nothing more than
theological eyewash. Cloning shows
that the human species is no different
from other forms of life in its molecular
mechanics. It shows that we are systems of matter and energy - period.
There is no ghost in the machine.
Priests and preachers are dealers in
souls, however. If there are no souls,
they are out of business. Politicians
depend upon priests and preachers to
provide them with obedient, uncritical
followers; they can't let the soul-mongers go out of business.

Frank R. Zindler
Parsippany, New Jersey

There are dire consequences if


Congress outlaws human cloning for
therapeutic purposes or ratifies a House
bill specifying a $1 million fine and ten
years in prison as the penalty for
human cloning. Therapeutically, cloning
presents us with the dazzling prospect
of practical immortality. If we could use
stem cells from our own embryonic
clones to replace worn-out organs of our
bodies, we could almost live forever.
Unlike ordinary organ transplants,
these stem cells would be identical antigenically to ourselves, so they would not
be rejected by our immune systems. We
could even use stem cells to replenish
the declining numbers of neurons in
aging brains. This would not, be it
noted, require the cloned embryo to
develop into an "unborn baby," as the
Right-to-Single-Celled-Lifers so inaptly
call a fetus. A blastocyst - a hollow ball
of cells - with less than a thousand cells
probably would be an adequate source
of stem cells. In fact, by the time the
embryo has developed recognizable, differentiated organs and tissues it is
probably too late to get true stem cells cells that can literally develop into any
part of the body from nerves to nails.
Only religious superstition
can
make otherwise normal people think
that destruction
of a single-celled
zygote or early embryo is the equivalent
of murder - Dr that it has any ethical
significance whatsoever. An embryo
resulting from cloning is no more and
no less a potential person than is any
ordinary nucleated cell of the human
body. Every nerve cell, skin cell, liver
cell, and hair follicle contains in its
nucleus the complete instructions for
manufacturing the person in which it is
found. Every one of these cells is a
potential person. Are we committing
murder every time we brush our teeth
and swallow cells sloughed off our
gums?
Winter 2001-2002

Nuclei from such cells, when transferred into unfertilized


egg cells
(oocytes) which have lost their own
nuclei, are the source ofthe information
required to control cell division and
form embryos. Unidentified factors in
the oocyte cytoplasm act upon the chromosomes of the transplanted nucleus to
dedifferentiate them and rejuvenate
them. In a very real sense, otherwise
mortal cells with finite life expectancies
become immortalized and transformed
into stem cells - which not only can
replicate themselves indefinitely, but
can redifferentiate into all the types of
cells found in the body, including eggs
and sperms. Nowhere in this process is
there a role for "the hand of God" - only
the hands oflab technicians are needed.
We must turn to chemistry, not theology, if we would understand the human
body or find an answer to Shakespeare's
question, "What is a man?"
Christian opposition to science and
learning brought on the Dark Ages, and
Catholic opposition to dissection and
medical research held back medicine for
many centuries. Without Christianity,
we would have cured cancer centuries
ago. Without papal opposition to the
physical sciences and free inquiry,
Columbus would have landed on the
moon, not a Caribbean island, as
Madalyn O'Hair observed many years
ago. Christian antiscience now curses
us once again.
We must urge Congress not to be
stampeded blindly into outlawing scientific research. A benefit to humankind of
almost
unimaginable
proportions
awaits us in those cloning laboratories.
We must hope our elected representatives will spurn the threats of the
preachers and act in the best interests
of humanity. In the long line of generations extending into the dateless times
of prehistory, no society has ever had a
chance like this one!
Page 3

Russian Atheists
Petition Government
(Translated from the Russian by Mark R. Hatlie)

The document
below is a
Declaration adopted" by the First
Anticlerical Conference, which was
held in Russia early this year. This
Declaration, together with an Open
Letter, was sent to President Putin
and Prime Minister Kasyanov. The
Open Letter was made public on 20
April 2001 at a press conference that
received some media coverage (It was
even mentioned in the Guardian and
the Observer).
Signatures
to support
the
Declaration were collected in just a
few Russian cities, most prominently,
Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The
Declaration was signed by scientists
of different status and rank (including three Academicians), university
students, and other citizens. Mr.
Sergey Kovalyov,
a well-known
human rights activist, also put his
name to the document.
This Declaration is the first serious attempt, after the collapse of
Communism, to make the voice of
non-believers heard. Of course, it
goes against the pro-religious trend
that currently prevails in Russia. But
it is only the first step.

In Defense of Freedom
of Conscience and a
Secular State

e, the participants of the


First Anticlerical Scientific
Conference on Science,
Religion, and Atheism, express our
deep concern about growing manifestations of clericalism in the
Russian Federation, especially on
the part of the Russian Orthodox
Church. In particular, we think it is
Page 4

unacceptable for the church to be


involved in political activity, to infiltrate into the armed forces, and lawenforcement agencies.
We consider it unlawful for the
state to finance the construction of
church buildings, to transfer cultural and museum treasures into the
hands of the Russian Orthodox
Church, or to extend economic and
tax privileges to the latter. We deem
unconstitutional the practice of religious ceremonies within public agencies and the introduction
of
Christmas and Easter into the list of
national holidays, as well as open
promotion of religious beliefs in
mass media without giving the floor
to alternative viewpoints. Moral terror aimed to discourage Atheists is
outrageous. The plans of introducing
theology into the official curriculum
of Russia's state-run educational
institutions make a special part of
the process. These plans are supported by certain officials including
V. Filipov, Minister of Education; Yu.
Osipov, President of the Russian
Academy of Science, N. Nikandrov,
Head of the Education Academy, and
V. Sadovnichiy, Rector of the Moscow
State University.
We regard the attempts of some
scientists to put science at the service of theology as highly unreasonable, because science and religion
are based on fundamentally different principles and thus cannot be
blended together. Such efforts can
only result in worsening the miserable condition of Russian science,
preparing the ground for pseudoscientific theories which tarnish the
image of Russian scientists at home
and abroad.
Winter 2001-2002

We call upon the President and


the Government of the Russian
Federation, as well as regional
authorities,
to abide by the
Constitution, which establishes the
principle of a secular state, and the
separation of church from state and
state education. We think that those
people at the head of academic and
educational organizations who try to
introduce Orthodox Christian beliefs
into universities and schools, at the
expense of the state, violate not only
the laws of our country, but also the
ethical norms of science, and their
behavior is inconsistent with their
status.
Finally, we appeal to the top
clergy of the Russian Orthodox
Church, both in Moscow and in the
regions, to turn down their revanchist fervor. We insist that they
respect the norms of Russian legislation, taking into account the interests of those Russian citizens who
are alien to the Orthodox worldview,
including
millions
of Russian
Atheists, and abstain from unbridled
torment, insults, and oppression of
those people.
Observing the principles of freedom of conscience and a secular state
will serve to consolidate civil society,
prevent the growth of national or
religious separatism and ideological
breach among Russians, and will be
a source of true revival of Russia.

American Atheist

An Atheist's Guide to
Mohammedanism
By Frank R. Zindler

ohammedans don't like to be called Mohammedans - that smacks too much of terms such as
Christians. As everybody knows, Christians worship Christ as a god. Mohammedans don't want people to
think they worship Mohammed (Arabic, Muhammad" *In transliterating Arabic, Hebrew, and other Semitic languages several special characters are required for sounds that
either are not found in English or are not recognized as separate sounds having their own alphabetic characters. The character I ' I is used to represent the glottal stop - the brief constriction of the throat that occurs when one pronounces a
vowel at the beginning of an isolated word, but which is often
absent when the word is preceded by an. Thus, we have 'apple,
pronounced with a glottal stop, but 'an apple which, when
smoothly pronounced, lacks the glottal stop before the second
a. In Semitic languages, the glottal stop is given a symbol of
its own and has the honor of being the first letter of the alphabet - alef - although in Arabic it carries a special diacritical
mark called hamza to make it clear that the glottal stop is
actually pronounced. Modern Arabic and ancient Hebrew have
another special sound, a deep-throated, laryngeal glide, which
is lacking in English but is considered to be a separate letter
of the alphabet - ayin - and is transliterated with the special
character I' I The difference between alef I ' I and ayin I
c I can be illustrated
by two rather undignified examples. A
string of alefs (glottal stops) is pronounced when one imitates
the sound of a machine-gun: -aal-aal-aal-aal-aal The ayin, on
the other hand, is the dipping glide one makes when imitating
the sound of an automobile engine being started up when it's
ten below zero: aah -aah , 'aah , -aah , -aah, Arabic, like most
Semitic languages, has three gradations of aitch. The lightest
of them, transliterated as h, is identical to the aitch of English.
The harshest of them, usually transliterated as kh, is like the
ch in the German name Bach. The middle aitch, transliterated with the special character h, is pretty much like the sound
one makes when breathing heavily on bifocals to fog them for
cleaning.

Formerly a professor of biology and geology,


Frank R. Zindler is now a science writer. He is a
member of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, the New York Academy
of Science, the Society of Biblical Literature, and
the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is
the editor of American Atheist. His book The
Jesus The Jews Never Knew: Sepher Toldoth
Yeshu and the Quest of the Historical Jesus in
Jewish Sources will be published by American
Atheist Press in the spring of2002.
Parsippany, New Jersey

'Praiseworthy'), and so dislike referring to their religion as


Mohammedanism.
However, Confucians don't worship
Confucius (Chinese, K'ung Fu-tsu - 'K'ung [a family name]
the Grand Master'), even though their system is called
Confucianism and often is considered to be a religion. Even
so, Mohammedans don't want Mohammed to be viewed as
a parallel of the Christ of the Christians.
Mohammed was merely a prophet, they will argue,
who disclaimed the ability to do miracles. Mohammed was
just a man - albeit the perfect man, leading a completely
sinless life which has become the model for all true believers to emulate. Moreover, it will be asserted, Mohammed
did not choose to be a prophet; he was chosen by Allah. He
did not himself compose the 'revelations' that were spoken
from his mouth; they were delivered to him by an angel
who got them from the 'Mother of the Book' which has
existed in heaven either forever or for just a little bit less.
Mohammed was a passive agent of Allah, simply serving as his mouthpiece or oracle. It is his message that is
important, not his biography. He was one of a series of
prophets who reported Allah's wishes to men (perhaps
even to some women). These prophets included Jesus
(Arabic 'Issa), who, to spite the Christians, is demoted by
Mohammedans from non-profit to prophet status. Most
importantly, Mohammed was Allah's last prophet. Thus,
Joseph Smith was an impostor, and Mormon missionaries
are not welcome in Mohammedan territories.
(Of course,
no missionaries of any kind are welcome in such places,
where it is often a capital
offense to convert a
Mohammedan to 'infidelity'.)
Despite such protestations by the faithful (all nonMohammedans are infidels), the reverence accorded to
Mohammed at times has bordered on the threshold of worship if not actually transgressing it. Very early, his followers came to attribute a number of miracles to him and
passed along fabulous tales of supernatural signs and wonders relating to his birth and career. (One night, it is
believed, Mohammed set out on a nocturnal journey or
Mira) up to the heavens where he communed with Allah
face-to-face.) It is still believed by many that at the Last
Judgment, Mohammed will be an intercessor like the
Virgin Mary and the Catholic saints, pleading for the
exculpation of those who have submitted themselves to his
teachings.
Among the mystical Sufis (from the Arabic suf, meaning 'wool' - alluding to the woolen hair shirts worn by early
Sufis, not to the woolliness of their thinking), exaltation
and veneration of Mohammed seems to have reached
Christian proportions. In Sufism, Mohammed has become

Winter 2001-2002

Page 5

the eternal manifestation of the Divine Light in the world,


unique to Islam. It is a natural attribute of all monotheispre-existent like the Christian Logos, representing the pritic religions.
mal, divine force which created and sustains the universe,
The second pillar ofIslam, salat, is daily ritual prayer.
the only intermediary through whom one may approach
This is mandatory only five times per day (at dawn, noon,
Allah and have knowledge of him. For
mid-afternoon, sunset, and nighttime),
all practical
purposes,
the
Sufi
570 CE
but extremely religious Muslims such as
Mohammed (peace be upon him) is a
suicide bombers and aerial terrorists
supernatural being, even if not quite a
Birth of Mohammed? usually pray more frequently. Prayer
full-fledged god.
requires a person to face Mecca and the
Mohammedans prefer to be called Muslims,* a term
Ka'aba, a roughly cubical building containing a magical
derived from the Arabic 'aslama, meaning 'to resign oneblack stone thought
by some to be a meteorite.
self [to Allah)'. They prefer their religion to be called Islam
(Archaeological and other evidence shows, however, that in
(from Arabic 'islam, meaning 'submis575 CE
the early years of Islam, prayers were
sion') rather than Mohammedanism.
directed at Jerusalem,
not Mecca.)
Most western scholars have gone along Persian occupation
of Prayer is preceded by ritual purification
with this, rather than risk the wrath of
southern Arabia
and involves a series of bowings, prospurportedly peaceful members of 'the
trations,
and recitations
from the
third great Abrahamic faith'. Nevertheless,
MohamQur'an. On Fridays, prayer is communal and conducted in
medanism seems to be a perfectly appropriate name for a
a mosque (Arabic masjid, 'place for prostration'). Led by an
religion which currently poses so great a threat to secular
imam (from Arabic amma, 'to walk before'), with worshipcivilizations throughout the world. Despite this fact, it
pers standing in rows behind him, prayers normally are
must be conceded that Islam is easier to spell than
followed by a sermon. (Contrary to common western opinMohammedanism,
and Muslim is less tedious to type than
ion, it is not mandatory for sermons to contain the slogans
Mohammedan. Consequently, these shorter words will be
"Death to America" or "Death to Israel.") Women do not
the terms most often employed in the remainder of this
generally attend these public prayers, and when they do
guide.
enter into mosques they are segregated from the men.
Although this offends the western sense of sexual equality,
The Five Pillars of Islam
it is quite understandable. The minds of men bowing down
Given the fierce monotheism professed by Muslims
to the ground might wander from thoughts of the singuand their sometimes violent rejection of
larity of Allah if their noses were merely
all religions other than Islam, one
inches away from the raised derrieres of
576 CE
women kneeling on prayer rugs in front
might suppose that intolerance would
Death of Mohammed's of
them. Even if the women were combe the first and most fundamental 'pilmother, Amina?
lar' upon which their religious practice
pletely shrouded in burqas, their intermingled presence would be a deterrent
rests. Not surprisingly, however, this
to patriarchal piety.
greatest of Muslim virtues is not made explicit, but rather
The third pillar of Islam is zakat, the giving of a fixed
is allowed to lurk hidden within the first of the five duties
('pillars') required of all Muslim men.
percentage of one's property to the poor and the homeless.
The first pillar is the recitation (preferably in Arabic)
Since there usually are no formal arrangements made for
collection of zakat, this generally is the
of the creed, or shahada: "There is no
602 CE
least burdensome of the five pillars.
god but Allah, and Mohammed is his
prophet." If Allah is the only god in the
The fourth pillar is the fasting
End of Arab
neighborhood, Trinitarian
Christians
required during the lunar month of
principality of Hira,
and Hindus are endlessly blaspheming
Ramadan, which can occur at any seatrue religion. Despite the occasionally
son of the year. During this period, no
on Iraq-Arabian
food or drink may be consumed during
tolerant references in the Qur'an to
borderlands.
daylight
hours, although
pregnant
"People of the Book" (Jews and
women and certain others may be
Christians in addition to Muslims), the
non-Muslims need to be eliminated. Convert them or kill
exempted from this rule. Feasting is obligatory at the end
them, or make them pay a religious ransom to continue the
of Ramadan, but with both pork and alcohol being forbidden, this feast offers far less fun than that enjoyed at, say,
private practice of their religion. (Of necessity, Muslims
Irish or Polish Catholic festivals.
must reject the Universal Declaration of
The fifth and final pillar of Islam is
Human Rights.) Atheists and Agnostics,
610 CE
the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca every
who deny the reality of Allah, are also
Mohammed's first
able-bodied Muslim is required to make
wicked blasphemers. They need to be
at least once in his life. Pilgrims must
eliminated also. It is preferable to kill
'revelation'?
them. Such intolerance, of course, is not
wear special dress, walk seven times
around the Ka-aba (Arabic ka'bun, 'a cube'), and kiss the
*The term Muslim is classical Arabic, whereas Moslem is coltalismanic black stone enshrined like an idol in the southloquial Arabic, where u has changed to 0, and i has changed to
east corner of the edifice. Although probably a meteorite e. Thus, Mohammed
is the colloquial equivalent of
and thus a truly heavenly stone - the black stone is
Muhammad, and Umar becomes Omar.
Page 6

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

having been his employer at the time. Only after her death
claimed to be one of the precious stones of paradise given
in 620 did Mohammed begin to practice polygamy, taking
by the angel Gabriel to the patriarch Abraham when he
perhaps a dozen wives. Only one of his children survived,
built the Kaaba - in Arabia, contrary to Jewish and
however, a daughter named Fatima.
Christian opinion! Even though the
stone has been stolen, burned, and bro(She married her father's cousin -Ali,
613 CE
ken, it is the veneration focal point for
making him the ancestor of all the
Mohammed begins
more than a billion Muslims in the
prophet's later descendants.)
Tradition also tells us that in the
preaching?
world today. (With so many Muslims
year
610, while meditating in a cave outrequired to come to Mecca, the logistics
Flight
of
his
followers
side
Mecca, a supernatural voice (later
of the Hajj are rapidly bursting the
identified
as the voice of the angel
to
Ethiopia?
bounds of the possible.) The Kaaba temGabriel, the same heavenly messenger
ple is widely believed to be older than
that previously had delivered the results of the pregnancy
Mohammed, having housed the pagan Arabian pantheon.
test to the Virgin Mary) commanded him to "Recite in the
All its idols were destroyed when it was adapted to serve
name of thy Lord, who created." Thus began the alleged
the Islamic cultus.
revelations of the Qur'an. This event is revered as the
When in Mecca kissing the Ka-aba, it is also incumbent
"First Call" of the prophet and has been
upon pilgrims to kill an animal in the
immortalized as the "Night of Power."
Mina valley on the tenth day of the
619 CE
At least at first, Mohammed's 'revemonth of pilgrimage, since Allah, like
the Yahweh of the Jews, is believed to Deaths of Khadija and lations' were like those of other oracles,
soothsayers, and religious con-artists
enjoy having animals killed for his viewAbu Talib?
whose utterances
took the form of
ing pleasure. (It is amusing to imagine
rhymed prose. Mohammed convinced himself that he had
what will happen if PE.TA and the Animal Liberation
been called to be a prophet in the tradition of the Jews and
Front ever get wind of this. How Muslims would deal with
of Jesus. He also convinced a small coterie of relatives and
the threat of animal-rights terrorism would be something
friends that he had tapped into a direct line to Allah. This
worth watching closely.) After killing a goat or other suitquickly led to friction with his tribe, the
able sacrificial species (for some reason,
Quraysh, who were custodians of the
dogs and pigs are deemed unsuitable),
620CE
Kaaba, which at the time was a pagan
most pilgrims then betake themselves to
Mohammed's "Night- shrine housing all the idols of economic
Medina (Yathrib), a city located 210
miles north of Mecca, in order to pray at Flight" from Mecca to significance to his tribe.
As is necessary
for foundation
what is claimed to be Mohammed's
Jerusalem
and
then
to
myths
of
virtually
all
religions,
the first
tomb. (If there are in fact human
followers
of
the
new
faith
had
to
endure
the Seventh Heaven?
remains in the tomb, it would be interpersecution,
fleeing
to
Christian
esting to see if the DNA could be
Ethiopia around the year 615. While those Muslims-in-thematched up to that of persons claiming descent from the
making were out of town, Mohammed and the disciples
prophet.) I have been unable to learn whether pilgrims face
who had stayed with him in Mecca were confined under
the tomb or Mecca when performing their Medina prayers.
siege - to be starved into submission.
Just in the nick of time, Mohammed received a revelaThe Legend of Mohammed
tion that helpfully clarified the theopolitical questions at
Although Mohammed is believed to have been born in
issue for the Meccan guardians of the gods in the Ka-aba.
the year 570 or 571 CE, it is not known what name he was
When Mohammed had reported that Allah was the only
given by his mother. Mohammed
god in town, it turned out that he hadn't
('praiseworthy' or 'highly praised') is
622 CE
received the entire satellite transmisobviously an honorific title, not a name. Hegira of Mohammed from sion. Perhaps Gabriel had mumbled and
In fact, once in the Qur'an (at 61:6) he is
Mecca to Medina?
Mohammed missed part of the message.
called 'Ahmad, which in Arabic means
Wouldn't you know? The three favorite
'more praiseworthy', and at times his Islamic era begins July 16 goddesses of Mecca - al-Lat, al-Uzzah,
contemporaries are said to have called
Muslims win the Battle
and al-Manat - were also real! This
him al-r/smin, which means 'the trustof Badr?
saved Mohammed's neck and all body
worthy one'. Despite this problem,
Jewish tribe of al-Nadhir parts attached thereto, and the exiles
Muslims believe that Mohammed - whowere able to return from Ethiopia. Later,
ever he may have been - was born in
is crushed and expelled?
when it was safe to do so, this all-imp orMecca, an Arabian city supposed to have
"The War of the Trench," tant revelation was expunged from the
been located at the intersection of major where Muslims in Medina
Qur'an and it was explained that the
caravan trade routes. Orphaned early in repulse attack from Mecca? revelation
had come from Shaitan
life, when he reached the age of twenty (Satan), not Allah. Thus began the legfive (595 CE) he married a wealthy widow named Khadija,
end of the "Satanic Verses," which more than a thousand
fifteen years his senior. According to a traditional account,
years later was to prompt the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue
Mohammed had married his boss - the merchant Khadija
a fatwa of death against the novelist Salman Rushdie.
Parsippany, New Jersey

Winter 2001-2002

Page 7

To draw attention to the Satanic Verses is to galvanize


a still-raw nerve in the body politic of Islam.
Once his power base had grown sufficiently,
To draw attention to the Satanic Verses is to galvanize
Mohammed took to banditry, attacking a Meccan caravan
a still-raw nerve in the body politic of Islam. The Satanic
led by Abu-Sufyan of the Quraysh tribe as it was returning
Verses are an acute embarrassment
to Mohammedan
from Syria in the year 624 CE, during the
authorities because they imply that it
holy
month of Ramadan when fighting
was Satan, not Allah, who had saved
627CE
was prohibited. Somehow, the Meccans
their prophet's life. If Allah was the only
Jewish Qurayza tribe
learned of this and rushed to the aid of
god, and if he had previously selected
Mohammed to be his last and greatest attacked by Mohammed? the caravan, meeting 300 Muslims-inthe-making
with a thousand Meccan
mouthpiece on this planet, why didn't
Treaty of Hudaybiyya?
fighters on a battlefield called Badr,
he save his own appointed prophet?
Why would the god of evil want to save Truce with the Quraysh? approximately twenty miles southwest
of Medina. Naturally, a miracle occurred
his enemy's ambassador?
Might not
Jews of Khaybar are
and the prophet's force was victorious.
there be more Satanic Verses in the
exterminated?
From this time forward, the name Islam
Qur'an - verses that have never been
('submission') was to belie the true nature of the militant
recognized as the handiwork of the prince of devils? Who
polity which to this day is an obstacle in the path to
knows what evils yet may lurk in the Book of Books?
planetary peace.
In any event, the Satanic Verses didn't solve
After consolidating
his hold on
Mohammed's problems for the long
Medina, Mohammed chased the Jews
term, and Mohammed and his gang
630 CE
from their farms and divorced his develwould have to leave Mecca. On 16 July
Mohammed conquers oping
system from both Judaism and
622 CE - a date that later would become
Mecca?
Christianity.
He ordered the faithful
the starting point of the Moslem calenhenceforth to pray facing Mecca, not
drical era* - some of his disciples left
Jerusalem as had been the case up to then. In 628
for the town ofYathrib, several hundred miles to the north.
Mohammed obtained a truce with Mecca allowing his
Mohammed and his friend Abu-Bakr followed them,
arriving in Yathrib on 24 September 622 and renaming the
followers to make the pilgrimage to the Ka'aba, Mecca
became the religious capital ofIslam and
town Medina (Arabic al-Madinah, 'the
Medina
remained the political capital. In
city' [of the prophet]). Although the
632 CE
630 Mohammed attacked Mecca, conhouse-moving does not seem to have
March, Pilgrimage of quered it, and smashed the 360 idols in
been all that remarkable to a western
observer, it was considered to be a foundathe Ka'aba, He declared the territory
farewell?
tional event in the history of Islam. In
surrounding the shrine to be haram Death of Mohammed? forbidden
- to all non-Muslims. Even
Muslim literature, the migration from
today, no Atheist or Christian could visit
Mecca to Medina is referred to as the
Abu Bakr becomes
the taboo area and escape with his life.
Hegira (Arabic hijrah 'migration').
first caliph?
Indeed, the entire region of Saudi Arabia
While in Medina, Mohammed conin which the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located
tinued to dictate 'revelations' to various of his disciples,
(the Hijaz) is considered by Wahabi Muslims such as
apparently
including some who were able to write.
(Mohammed is believed to have been illiterate.) More
Osama bin Laden to be haram and out-of-bounds for
importantly, however, he became a sucAmerican military infidels.
cessful politician,
contracting
many
On 8 June 632, Mohammed came
633-637 CE
alliances by means of marriages. The
down with a truly killer headache and
Arabs conquer Syria died suddenly. He died in Aisha's apartmost notable of these marriages was
with Aisha, the infant daughter of Abuand Iraq
ment and was buried right there. (There
Bakr, who became the most influential
is no proof whatsoever that he ever
of all the prophet's wives. Many of the 'traditions' of the
uttered the famous line, "Not tonight, honey, I've got a
prophet are claimed to have been transmitted through her.
headache.") Before he died, he had sent forces to attack
Syria, beginning a struggle that would not end until a
"The Muslim calendar, like the Jewish calendar, is a lunar calmajor
part of the civilized world was subject to Arabs and
endar - the year consisting of six months of 29 days and six
their
new-fangled
religion.
months of 30 days each. This adds up to only 354 days,
creating a discrepancy with the solar year of a little over three
The Legend of the Qur'an
years per century. Unlike Jewish calendrical practice, no
attempt is made to bring the Moslem year into accord with the
The Qur'anIKoran (Arabic Qur'dn, 'reading' or 'recitasolar year (the Muslim calendar falls behind eleven days every
tion'), as everybody
knows, is the bible of the
solar year), intercalary days are added every three years or so
Mohammedans. It is the source of their 'knowledge' that
to make up for the fact that a lunation is a bit more than 29.5
there is but a single god, Allah, and that for men (and
days long.
American Atheist
Page 8
Winter 2001-2002

probably for women as well) after death there will be a


Qur'an had been killed during the Battle of Yamama in
limbo-like state leading to the Last Day, the Resurrection,
Central Arabia. Unless all parts of the Qur'an were collectand Retribution. In the thereafter, wicked men such as infied, there was serious danger that irreplaceable rules and
dels will suffer damnation. According to
regulations for living would be lost forevSura 44:43-50, the fruit of the Zuqqum
er. Very shortly after the death of the
636 CE
tree will be their food and it will burn in
prophet,
then,
Abu
Bakr
asked
Battle of Qadisiyya,
their guts like molten brass and boil like
Mohammed's former secretary Zaid ibn
scalding water. They will be dragged
defeat of the Persians Thabit to write down all those dicta still
into the midst of blazing fire and then,
in people's memories, the entire collecjust for good measure, boiling water will be poured over
tion then being transcribed onto a more suitable writing
their heads. "In front of such a one is Hell, and he is given
material. The Qur'an thus assembled passed from Abu
for drink boiling, fetid water. In gulps will he sip it, but
Bakr after he died to his successor -Umar, who in turn
never will he be near swallowing it down his throat. Death
bequeathed it to his daughter Hafsa. Ultimately, those prewill come to him from every quarter, yet he will not die; and
cious words carried by Gabriel to Mohammed were transin front of him will be a chastisement
mitted to sinful mortals such as we unrelenting"
[14:~6-17]. Islamic Hell
with perfect fidelity, so that we all can
639-642 CE
would appear to be even worse than 'life'
know Allah's whims and wishes without
Conquest of Egypt
in a Taliban society - which at least can
ambiguity and without excuse.
be circumvented by death.
The Muslim Paradise is decidedly a man's heaven,
The Legend of the Qur'an Examined
despite the fact that Sura 9:72 promises to both believing
men and women "gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell
Unfortunately for Islamic orthodoxy, this encouraging
therein, and beautiful mansions, in gardens of everlasting
tale of Qur'anic origins proves to be a bit more complicated
bliss." Sura 44:51-54 promises believers they will be
(and less certain) than the mullahs and ayatollahs would
rewarded
in Paradise
with houris
have us believe. As is the case when
(Arabic hur) "with beautiful, big, and
650 CE
trying to reconstruct the early history of
lustrous eyes." Such damsels are clearly
Capture of island
any religion, there are conflicting tradithe reward for jihad-fighting men. That
of Arwad
tions to be dealt with. There is a tradithey could also be rewards for burqation which has Abu Bakr first have the
wearing women is unthinkable. Occasional proof-texts to
idea to collect the Qur'an, but other traditions give the
the contrary notwithstanding, Mohammed's heaven is a
credit to the fourth caliph, 'Ali - the Prophet's son-in-law
penile paradise. (It is a pity no reliable translation of the
and cousin (or brother, in one tradition). (It is from -Ali that
Qur'an exists in English; all available English versions
the Shi'a sect claims its descent.) Adding to the uncertainty
have been cleaned up and civilized by apologetic trans laand confusion, there are versions that exclude Abu Bakr
tors.)
completely!
As already noted, the Qur'an is sup656 CE
It is implausible, moreover, that
posed to have been revealed to the
such a task could be completed in a mere
allegedly illiterate Mohammed over a
Murder of 'Uthman? two years. Furthermore, the warriors
period of years until his death in 632 CEo
Beginning of first
who fell at Yamama were apparently
(It is possible, of course, that his illiteramostly new converts who would unlikely
cy was a fabrication designed to counter
civil war in Islam?
have known many verses by heart. On
charges that Mohammed had written up
top of this, it seems inexplicable that no
the 'revelations' himself and had been educated enough to
publication of the Qur'an thus compiled was carried out.
be able to author the supposedly matchless Arabic prose
Instead, it was treated as the private property of Hafsa. It
with which they are expressed.) There is a tradition that
seems likely that the tradition of Abu Bakr's collection was
Mohammed dictated his revelations to his secretaries, who
invented in order to establish the authenticity of the sacred
either memorized them or wrote them
text - by taking it as close to the time of the Prophet as posdown on things like palm leaves, stones,
657 -659 CE
sible.s It has also been suggested that
and even perhaps
camel shoulder
the story was made up in order to take
blades- and other such publication
Battle of Siffin
away the glory of Qur'anic creation from
media that existed in the advanced sociMurder of 'Ali
-Uthman, the third caliph, who appears
ety which the Lord of the Universe had
to have been widely disliked. (This might
chosen as the model for all subsequent Beginning of Umayyad explain why he was murdered in 656 CE.)
earthly societies. Almost certainly, at
dynasty
'Uthman became the third caliph
the time of Mohammed's death no sin[644-656] a mere dozen years after the
gle manuscript of the entire' Qur'an Massacre of Husayn and time allotted by tradition to Mohamexisted.
Alids at Karbala
med's death. Tradition credits him also
There is a tradition that indicates
with having collected the Qur'an after
that immediately after the death of Mohammed in 632,
being asked to do so by one of his generals, who complained
during the caliphate of his friend Abu Bakr [632-634], his
that theological quarrels had broken out among troops
friend 'Umar (Omar) became alarmed over the fact that so
from different provinces in regard to the correct readings of
many Muslims who knew by heart various parts of the
Parsippany, New Jersey

Winter 2001-2002

Page 9

sors to Mohammed's political office and were losing ground


the Qur'an. (Tradition is curiously silent as to where these
as successors to his religious authority. The ubiquitous relidifferent versions of the Qur'an had come from and who
gious contest between priests and politicians was beginhad written them down.)
ning to develop in what we may call
It will be recalled that in the story of
Islam's embryonic period. Competing
Abu Bakr's Qur'an, it was the prophet's
683-690 CE
with the caliphs were the Qurra (Arabic
secretary Zaid ibn Thabit who wrote
Second civil war
for 'reciters' or 'readers') - men who were
everything down. Apparently unaware
the masters oflarge volumes of Qur'anic
that he had done it all before, -Uthman
commissioned ibn Thabit to prepare an official, standard
verbiage and could recite the supposed revelations when
text. Supposedly, this was done with the aid of three reprecalled upon to lead in worship or settle disputes. Many
sentatives of noble Meccan families, who compared a copy
Qurra claimed to have actually learned their verses from
of unknown provenance in the possesMohammed himself, although many by
sion of'Uthman with the 'leaves' (Arabic
685-687 CE
now were second or even third scholarly
generations removed from the Prophet.
suhuf)
owned by -Umars
daughter
Revolt of Mukhtar
The fact that the whole application of
Hafsa - the same manuscript that ten
in Iraq
years earlier Zaid is supposed to have
the Qur'an depended
upon memory
written out himselfl
Beginning of extremist
invited abuse. Verses claiming to be
Qur'anic revelations could be - and were
Copies of -Uthman's
new version
Shia'
- invented to serve the economic and
were sent to Kuf~, Basra, Damascus,
'Abd aI-Malik
and Mecca some time between 650 and
political needs of individual Qurra. (It is
656, the year of -Uthman's death. The introduces Arab coinage. likely that some of these recited verses
'original' was kept in Medina. All other
Muslims land in Spain. were written down in manuscripts of
versions of the Qur'an supposedly were

varying size, but of course, no Qur'anic


destroyed.
Since we know absolutely
Umayyads gIve way to manuscripts have survived from this
nothing of the origins or authenticity of
Abbasids.
period - forgeries to the contrary not
these other versions, we have no way to
Umayyad prince 'Abd withstanding.) To consolidate the power
know that -Uthman's edition is the

of the caliphate and stop the abuses of


truest copy of the heavenly 'Mother of
ar-Rahman IS Amir- of
the Qurra, it was necessary to eliminate
the Book'. The Qur'an emanating from
Cordova.
the contradictory
oral Qur'ans
and
-Uthman
looks suspiciously
like the
replace them with a standardized writproduct of political expediency.
ten text, which could not be manipulated when expedient.
Lest even this analysis be thought to provide too much
Exactly when this happened is not really known, but it
certainty regarding Qur'anic origins, there are discrepanmay have taken place as early as the reign of the caliph
cies even in the traditions from which it
'Uthman [644-656], as many traditions
has been constructed! In some cases, the
record.
Even so, Ibn Warraq has argued
762-763 CE
number of men on Zaid's commission
quite persuasively in his The Origins Of
varies, and men known to have been Foundtion of Baghdad
The Korans that both the Abu Bakr and
enemies of -Uthman are included on the
'Uthmanic traditions of Qur'anic compiby Mansur
roster. Without a wink anywhere to be
lation and standardization
are tendenseen among the swarthy swappers of these traditions, men
tious tales confected in later times.
are included in the project who were already dead at the
The earliest account of the compilation of the Qur'an is
time they were supposed to have been enlisted for the job.
that ofIbn Sa-ad [844 CE], followed by Bukhari [870 CE] and
Muslim [874 CE].4 (Remember, Mohammed is supposed to
Finally, the 'Uthman traditions seem completely to be
unaware of the 'fact' that Zaid ibn Thabit had already tranhave died in 632 CE.) Ibn Sa-ad transmits ten somewhat
scribed the Qur'an ten years earlier,
contradictory traditions
in which the
having himself produced the standard
'Companions' of Mohammed had 'collect809-813 CE
'leaves' in the possession of Hafsa. (That
ed' the Qur'an during the life of the
the compiler of the Qur'an
didn't Civil War of Amion and prophet. Still another
tradition
has
remember he had done it all before, let
'Uthman
ibn
-Affan
collect
the
Qur'an,
Mamun
alone know by heart the entire text of
during the caliphate of -Umar, not durHafsa's 'leaves' undercuts the apologetic Muslim notion
ing the lifetime of Mohammed. Still another tradition
that the early Arabs involved in the transmission of the
passed on by Ibn Sa-ad attributes the collection of the
Qur'anic text had prodigious, 'Oriental' memories.)
Qur'an in suhufs to the caliph 'Umar himselfl
From the conflicting welter of traditions regarding the
More important in terms of influence, even though
origins of the Qur'an there emerges a
later, is Bukhari.f He reports a tradition
813-833 CE
picture of somewhat coarse resolution. It
in which the Qur'an was collected during
would appear that by the time of
the lifetime of Mohammed
by four
Reign of Mamun
-Uthman there had emerged a theopolithelpers: Ubai ibn Ka-ab, Muadh ibn
of Arabic Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit, and Abu Zaid. In
ical class that was challenging
the Development
authority of the caliphs (Arabic kalifa,
another tradition, Ubai ibn Ka'ab is
science and letters
'successor'), who had become the succesreplaced by Abud-Darda. Still another
Page 10

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

Quite clearly, Christian historians during the entire


tradition 'proves' that the entire Qur'an was compiled
under the caliphate of Abu Bakr and was exclusively the
seventh century of the common era had no idea that the
Hagarite conquerors had a sacred book. Only at the end of
product of Zaid ibn Thabit. This is followed in Bukhari's
account by the tradition which we have already examined,
the first quarter of the eighth century does the Qur'an
viz., that Zaid had the help of three Qurayshites, and that
become the subject of argumentation
by Nestorian,
all variant versions in the provinces
Jacobite,
and Melchite
Christians.
were destroyed.
(Even though this
Somewhat
later, their polemics are
account appears 238 years after the
answered by the Muslims.
A lot can be learned from these
death of Mohammed and is 26 years
arguments about Muslim Qur'anic tradilater than the traditions recorded by Ibn
tions. Of special interest is an apology for
Sa-ad, this is the 'True Account' accepted
by most scholars writing before the mod11-40 AHf632-661 CE? Christianity written around the year 835
CE by a certain al-Kindi, whose work was
ern period of skeptical inquiry.)
11/632?
discussed in Alphonse Mingana's "The
Yet further traditions about the origins of the Qur'an are found in Arab hisTransmission
of the Koran," which has
13/634?
been reprinted by Ibn Warraq in his
torians such as Waqidi [d. 207 AH*/823
23/644?
CE] who says that
a Christian slave
extremely useful book The Origins of the
1 Al-Kindi gives details of the stonamed Ibn Qumta was the amanuensis
Koran.l
35-40/656-661?
of the prophet, along with a certain
ries circulating among the Muslims some
two centuries
after
the death
of
<Abdallah b. Sa-ad b. Abi Sarh, who
reported that "It was only a Christian
Mohammed:
slave who was teaching him [Moham41-132 AHf661-750 CE
It [the Qur'an] was not at first colmed]; I used to write to him and change
lected in a volume, but remained in sepwhatever I wanted."6
arate leaves. Then the people fell to variOf course, all the above traditions
ance
in their reading; some read accordare
wrong,
for Hajjaj
b. Yusuf
ing to the version of 'Ali, which they folBarhebrteus records that his boss the
low to the present day [i.e., c835 CE];
Caliph Abdul-Malik b. Marwan [684-704
132-656
AHf749-1258
CE
some read according to the collection of
CE] was the collector of the Qur'an! 7
which we have made mention [a collecIn this sand-storm of conflicting tration made by Abu Bakr himselfJ; one
ditions, there is no way to descry in Muslim sources just
party read according to the text ofIbn Mas'ud, and anothwhen the Qur'an came into being as a written text. Only an
er according to that of Ubai ibn Ka'ab.
examination of Christian accounts from the early centuries
of the Arab conquests can give us a clue. The Monophysite
Al-Kindi gives an account of the -Uthmanic collection
patriarch of Antioch, John I, recording lengthy religious
ofthe Qur'an which is recognizably the same as the one we
discussions with General -Amr b. al-As on 9 May 639 CE
have examined yet provides some interesting details for
says nothing that would indicate that the 'Hagarians' or
the story:
'Ishmailites' (the earliest non-Muslim names for Muslims)
had a sacred book of their own - even though the general
When 'Uthman came to power, and people everyhad been shown the Torah, the Prophets, and the Gospels
where differed in their reading, 'Ali sought grounds of
of the Jews and Christians.f This was, of course, only
accusation against him, compassing his death. One man
around seven years after the death of Mohammed, during
would read a verse one way, and another man another
way; and there was change and interpolation, some copies
the fifth year of the caliphate of <Umar. Around 647 CE, durhaving more and some less. When this was represented to
ing -Uthman's
caliphate,
the patriarch
of Seleucia,
'Uthman, and the danger urged of division, strife, and
Isho'yahb III, wrote a letter which betrays no knowledge of
apostasy, he hereupon caused to be collected together all
the existence of the Qur'an, and scholars familiar with this
the leaves and scraps that he could, together with the
famous character are certain he would have mentioned or
copy that was written out at the first. But they did not
quoted the Hagarian book if he had known of it or even
interfere with that which was in the hands of 'Ali [the hero
simply had heard of it.?
of
the Shi'itesi, or of those who followed his reading. Ubai
More than thirty years later still, in 680 CE, an anonywas dead by this time; as for Ibn Mas'ud, they demanded
mous writer from the time of the Umayyad caliphate of
his exemplar, but he refused to give it up. Then they comYazid ibn Mu-awiah discussed the Arabs as the simple
manded Zaid ibn Thabit, and with him <Abdallah ibn
descendants of Ishmael who still practiced the ancient
Abbas, to revise and correct the text, eliminating all that
Abrahamic faith and treated Mohammed as a purely miliwas corrupt; they were instructed, when they differed on
tary man, betraying no awareness of any religious function
any reading, word, or name, to follow the dialect of the
or role played by the conqueror. Even in 690 CE, John Bar
Quraish.
Penkaye - although an eyewitness of part of the Arab conWhen the recension was completed, four exemplars
quest - knows nothing of any Arabian sacred book existing
were written out in large text; one was sent to Mecca, and
during the caliphate of 'Abdul-Malik [685-705].10
another to Medina; the third was despatched to Syria,
and is to this day at Malatya; the fourth was deposited in
*AH = Anno Hegirte, 'In the year of the Hegira', reckoned from
Kufa. People say that this last copy is still extant at Kufa,
16 July 622 CE.

THE CALIPHS

Orthodox Caliphs

Abu Bakr
'Umar
'Uthman
'Ali

Umayyad Caliphs

Abbasid Caliphs in
Baghdad/Iraq

Parsippany, New Jersey

Winter 2001-2002

Page 11

but this is not the case, for it was lost in the insurrection
of Mukhtar (AR. 67). The copy at Mecca remained there
till the city was stormed by Abu Sarayah (AR. 200); he
did not carry it away; but it is supposed to have been
burned in the conflagration. The Medina exemplar was
lost in the reign of terror, that is, in the days ofYazid b.
Muawiah (AR. 60-64). [Emphasis added]
Thus, by the year 835 CE, three of the four official
copies of the Qur' an had been lost. But of course, other versions of the Qur'an were intentionally destroyed:
After what we have related above, 'Uthman called in
all the former leaves and copies, and destroyed them,
threatening those who held any portion back; and so only
some scattered remains, concealed here and there, survived. Ibn Mas'ud, however, retained his exemplar in his
own hands, and it was inherited by his posterity, as it is
this day; and likewise the collection of 'Ali has descended
in his family. [Emphasis added]
Assuming, as devout Muslims do, that the Qur'an contains the very words of Allah, how can one know that the
version of the Qur'an surviving today is the correct one?
Mohammedans
are faced with the same problem

Assuming, as devout Muslims do,


that the Qur'an contains the very
words of Allah, how can one know
that the version of the Qur'an
surviving today is the correct one?
Christians must resolve when asked the embarrassing
question, "Since there once existed almost a hundred
gospels that were sacred to various Christian groups, how
do you know that just these four gospels are the right
ones?" But the headache for Muslim apologists becomes a
migraine, if what al-Kindi wrote is true:12
Then followed the business of Rajjaj b. Yusuf, who
gathered together every single copy he could lay hold of,
and caused to be omitted from the text a great many passages. Among these, they say, were verses revealed concerning the Rouse ofUmayyah with names of certain persons, and concerning the Rouse ofAbbas also with names.
Six copies of the text thus revised were distributed to
Egypt, Syria, Medina, Mecca, Kufa, and Basra. After that
he called in and destroyed all the preceding copies, even
as Uthman had done before him. The enmity subsisting
between 'Ali and Abu Bakr, 'Umar and 'Uthman is well
known; now each of these entered in the text whatever
favored his own claims, and left out what was otherwise.
Row, then, can we distinguish between the 'genuine and
the counterfeit? And what about the losses caused by
Hajjaj? The kind of faith that this tyrant held in other
matters is well-known; how can we make an arbiter as to
the Book of God a man who never ceased to play into the
hands of the Umayyads whenever he found opportunity?

Page 12

THE LAW OF SHARIA


A Woman's Plight
Early in December of 2001, a Sharia religious
court of appeal
in Muslim-dominated
northwest
Nigeria ordered a stay of execution for a woman who
had been sentenced by a lower court to be stoned to
death for having sex outside of marriage. The woman
contended that she had been raped. The court granted
the stay to allow Safiya Hussaini, 33, to appeal her
sentence by a lower Sharia court in the state of Sokoto.
The woman is a divorced mother with five children
who would be orphaned and probably perish if the execution were carried out.
The court imposed the sentence after Hussaini
asked it to compel a man to pay for her infant daughter's naming ceremony. She charged he had raped her
three times and impregnated
her. When she charged
the man with rape, the court dismissed the charges
against him, citing a lack of evidence because she was
the sole witness. After dismissing
the rape charge
against the man, the lower Shari a court then charged
the woman with adultery and sentenced her to death
in mid-October. She was given thirty days to appeal.
According to Sura 2:282 of the Qur'an, the testimony
of a woman is equal to only half the testimony of a
man, so Hussaini's
appeal will automatically
be
trumped by the rapist's counter-charge.
Hussaini was sentenced to death because she was
divorced. Had she never been married, the sentence
would only have been one hundred lashes. The fate of
her five children, of course, was of no concern to the
religious court.
The Nigerian federal government has said it will
not allow the sentence to be carried out, but officials in
Sokoto indicated that the federal government had not
contacted them about the up-coming stoning. Nigeria
is not yet "One Nation Under God," since Sharia has
been imposed on less than a half of its 36 states. More
than a thousand people have lost their lives in riots
protesting the introduction of religious law.
How, indeed! It is immensely significant, I believe,
that twenty years after al-Kindi, when -Ali b. RabbanatTabari was asked by the caliph Mutawakkil to write a
counter-apology on behalf of Islam.lf he addressed not a
single one of al-Kindi's charges concerning the transmission of the Qur'an, falling back on a lame - but extremely
perceptive - ad hominem: "If such people may be accused
of forgery and falsehood, the disciples of the Christ might
also be accused of the same."
The Christian apologist receives unexpected corroboration from one of the most famous Muslim commentators
on the Qur'an, as-Suyuti [d. 1505 CE], who quoted Ibn
Umar al-Khattab as saying, "Let no one of you say that he

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

has acquired the entire Koran, for how does he know that
it is all? Much of the Koran has been lost; thus let him say,
'I have acquired of it what is available'."14 He also quotes
'Aisha, the favorite wife of Mohammed as having said that
"During the time of the Prophet, the chapter of the Parties
used to be two hundred verses when read. When Uthman

In Islam as in Christianity, a god is


made to say what is expedient to
support the theopolitical claims of
the parties that created him parties that make a living selling
him to hapless buyers who have no
Better Business Bureau to which
they can appeal.
edited the copies of the Koran, only the current [73 verses]
were recorded." (Among the alleged verses omitted was
that of 'The Stoning', which is supposed to have been
Allah's order that "If an old man or woman committed
adultery, stone them to death.")
There remain more subtle problems, however, in the
story of the transmission of Allah's instructions to mankind
after Gabe gave them to Mohammed. Some of the suras of
the Qur'an are extremely long chapters. How could
Mohammed have kept the whole thing in his head after
only one hearing? How could his amanuenses and secretaries have remembered them, perhaps after a single
recitation by the ecstatic reporter of Allah's will? And when
they wrote those priceless words down on leaves and stones
and camels' bones, how reliable was their record? Even
today, Arabic is written in a defective script, which does not
normally indicate the short vowels in words and makes the
reading of Arabic extremely difficult for a non-native
speaker of the language. Furthermore, in ancient times,
the problem was even greater. For at least a century after
the death of Mohammed in 632, Arabic writing was
'unpointed' - that is, the dots now placed above or below
certain consonants to distinguish them were not used. This
could cause enormous ambiguity, since b, t, and th could not
be distinguished from an initial or medial y; f could be confused with q; j, h, and kh would have looked the same; r
could not be distinguished from z, s from 4, s from sh, d from
dh, norr from 7-.
.
So great is the ambiguity resulting from the defectiveness of the Arabic script that even after pointed texts
appeared it was necessary to borrow (perhaps from the
Arameans) a system for indicating the short vowels in the
sacred text. That this was understood to be of extreme theological importance can be inferred from the fact that today
the Qur'an is practically the only book in which these
vowel marks are employed - apart from Arabic language
textbooks and dictionaries used to teach the throat disease
believed by pious Muslims to be the language in which the
creator of the universe speaks.
The problem of this defective script led to a situation in
which different centers of Islamic studies had variant rules
concerning the pointing and vocalization of the sacred text.
Parsippany, New Jersey

Variant texts survived, despite -Uthman's attempts at creating a Procrustean


uniformity. Ibn Warraq-> quotes
Charles Adams declaration that "It must be emphasized
that far from there being a single text passed down inviolate from the time of'-Uthman's commission, literally thousands of variant readings of particular verses were known
in the first three [Muslim] centuries. These variants affected even the 'Uthmanic codex, making it difficult to know
what its true form may have been."
The problem of ambiguity never ceased to plague
Muslims who desired an absolutely certain version of
Allah's instructions
on camel-castrating
or whatever.
Under the direction of the Qur'anic scholar Ibn Mujahid
[d. 935 CE],16there was a canonization of a specific consonantal system and a limit was placed on the vowels that
could be used. This resulted in seven officially sanctioned
systems for reading ofthe Qur'an, although some scholars
accepted ten readings and still others found fourteen of
merit. In the end, just three systems prevailed: the Medina
system of Warsh [d. 812 CE], the Kufa system of Hafs [d.
805], and the Basra system of ad-Duri [d. 860]. Presently,
only two of these seem to be in evidence: the system of
Hafs, which was adopted for the Egyptian edition of the
Koran issued in 1924, and the system of Warsh, which is
used elsewhere in Africa. (Although Muslim apologists
often claim that the seven versions pertain only to methods of recitation, this simply is not true.)!?
Clear proof that Qur'anic texts have evolved can be
seen from the fact that the first Qur'-anic (more accurately, pre-Qur'anic) quotations known are found on coins and
inscriptions dating toward the end of the seventh century.
Many of these differ from the canonical text. Substantial
differences from the canonical text are also found in the
ornamental inscriptions decorating the Dome of the Rock

And when they wrote those priceless words down on leaves and
stones and camels' bones, how reliable was their record?
in Jerusalem, executed during the reign of Abd al-Malik in
the seventy-second year of the Islamic era [691-692 CE].
Finally, some scholars have concluded that much of the
Qur'an actually predates Mohammed, being liturgical
material that was used by monotheistic Arabs, perhaps
JudCEo-Christians or the mysterious Hanifs to whom
Mohammed joined himself early in his career. Much of this
material, of course, was unintelligible to later commentators of the Qur'an who had to invent far-fetched explanations for the obscurities.
After this lengthy investigation of the origins and
transmission of the Qur'an, we can only come to the conelusion that Muslims have even less grounds for thinking
they have the genuine words of a god than do the
Christians with their epistles and gospels. In Islam as in
Christianity, a god is made to say what is expedient to support the theopolitical claims of the parties that created him
- parties that make a living selling him to hapless buyers
who have no Better Business Bureau to which they can
appeal.

Winter 2001-2002

Page 13

The Legend of Mohammed Examined


A modern book written for beginning English-speaking
Muslims-f very well summarizes the legend that needs to
be examined critically:
The life of Muhammad is known as the Sira and was
lived in the full light of history. Everything he did and
said was recorded. Because he could not read and write
himself, he was constantly served by a group of 45 scribes
who wrote down his sayings, instructions and his activities. Muhammad himself insisted on documenting his
important decisions. Nearly three hundred of his documents have come down to us, including political treaties,
military enlistments, assignments of officials and state
correspondence written on tanned leather. We thus know
his life to the minutest details: how he spoke, sat, sleeped
[sic], dressed, walked; his behaviour as a husband, father,
nephew; his attitudes toward women, children, animals;
his business transactions and stance toward the poor and
the oppressed; his engagement in camps and cantonments, his behaviour in battle; his exercise of political
authority and stand on power; his personal habits, likes
and dislikes - even his private dealings with his wives.
Within a few decades of his death, accounts of the life of
Muhammad were available to the Muslim community in
written form. One of the earliest and the most-famous
biographies of Muhammad, written less than [a] hundred
years after his death, is Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq.
The fire of these ardent assertions is quenched, however, by the cold water supplied by Professor John
Burton.l? an Islamologist at the University of St. Andrews,
as he comments on a translation of al-Tabari's History as it
deals with the life of Mohammed:
None will fail to be struck by the slimness of a volume
purporting to cover more than half a century in the life of
one of History's giants. Ignoring the pages tracing his lineage all the way back to Adam and disregarding the merely fabulous with which the author has padded out his
book, is to realize how very meagre is the hard information available to the Muslims for the life ofthe man whose
activities profoundly affected their own as well as the
lives of countless millions. Of the childhood, the education
ofthe boy and the influences on the youth, all of which set
the pattern of the development of the man, we know virtually nothing. We simply have to adjust to the uncomfortable admission that, in the absence of contemporary
documents, we just do not and never shall know what we
most desire to learn.
How is an interested observer to choose between these
diametrically opposite opinions concerning Mohammed?
Only by examining the evidentiary sources upon which
every Life of Mohammed must be based can we decide. So
we must briefly survey the material that has come down to us.

Sources of Information on Mohammed


Evidence on the life of Mohammed is derived from literary sources, papyri and manuscripts, inscriptions, coins,
and archaeology. The literary sources include the Sira (a
Page 14

life of Mohammed written by Ibn Ishaq), the Maghazi (an


account of the military acts and bandit raids of Mohammed, ascribed to al-Waqidi, d. 823), the Hadith (originally
oral reports about the sayings and deeds of Mohammed),
the Qur'an, the tafsir (commentaries on the Qur'an), and
the writings of early non-Muslim critics and observers.

The Hadith
Since much of the literary evidence ultimately
is
derived from the oral traditions captured in the Hadith (or
books of traditions), it is well to begin our criticism of the
life of Mohammed by inquiring into the reliability of the
Hadith. The Hadith are alleged to be the collected records
of what Mohammed did, what he enjoined, what he did not
forbid, and what was done in his presence. They also contain the supposed sayings and deeds of the prophet's companions. Each item is traced back to Mohammed by means
of an isnad, a chain of supposedly honest witnesses and
transmitters.
The substance of such a report is called a
matn, and the total tradition of Islamic law and morals
derivable from the accredited Hadith is known as the
sunna. Adherence to the sunna for guidance in all matters
for which the Qur'an is either obscure or silent is a defining characteristic of the major Muslim sect of the world
today, the so-called Sunni. (The other major group of
Muslims, the Shi-ites, do not generally honor the sunna,
and trace their origin to a very early dispute over who
should have been the immediate successor of Mohammed,
siding with Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law -Al; and
arguing that the leadership should have remained in
Mohammed's family.)
The Hadith are especially important in post-9-1-1
America, where constant propaganda in favor of Islam is
being broadcast even as part of television news programs.
"Islam is a religion of peace," it is said. "Islam gave rights
to women," they tell us, not mentioning Sura 2:282 which
accords a woman only half the weight of a man as a witness in court. We are assured that "It is contrary to Islam
to commit suicide," and that the kamikaze terrorists were
not "true muslims." Repeatedly it is argued that the
Qur'an forbids the sort of things that the Sunni* terrorists
did to the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. While it is true
that a selective reading of the Qur'an can justify this selfserving twaddle, it is nevertheless ignoring a major source
that, with very little effort, can be manipulated to justify
the moral outrages that have been inflicted on our nation
and other parts of the civilized world. That source is, of
course, the Hadith. It was the Hadith plus the Qur'an that
justified the Taliban in their restoration of the Dark Ages.
*Most of the terrorists, especially those from Arabia, have been
members of a fundamentalist
Sunni sect known as the
Wahabis. Founded by Mohammed ibn-Abd-al-Wahab [17031791 CE] ofthe Najd region of Central Arabia, it is noted for its
rejection of all 'novelties' absorbed by Islam, rejecting music
and the wearing of silk or jewelry. Wahab rejected consensus of
opinion as a source of authority. By marriage he became allied
with the family of Saud - the ruling family of Saudi Arabia
today. Recently, an Internet news site made the unconfirmed
claim that the great majority of imams who lead American
mosques are Wahabis.

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

It was the same two 'moral guides' that propelled the


kamikaze martyrs on their one-way flights up to the houris
in heaven.

Al-Bukhari traveled from country


to country to collect Hadith ...
discovering that more than
600,000 Hadith were current in his
day. Unfortunately, careful study
convinced him that of that vast
number only around four
thousand were authentic - and
European scholars would discard
at least half of that two-thirds of
one percent!
Sunni Muslims accept six collections of Hadith as
authentic traditions of Mohammed. These include the compilations of al-Bukhari [d. 870], Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj [d. 875],
Ibn Maja [d. 887], Abu Dawud [d. 889], al-Tirmidhi [d. 892],
and al-Nisai [d. 915]. In addition to these six collections,
there is the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal [d. 855], an
encyclopedia which contains nearly 29,000 Hadith!
Reminding ourselves that Mohammed died in 632, we
must immediately question the authenticity of traditions
recorded well over two centuries after
his time. To be sure, each Hadith is supported by an isnad tracing its transmission back to Mohammed. Nevertheless,
modern scholars have been able to
demonstrate that the vast majority of

idea of Hadith. When we learn that many collectors paid


people to cough up new and useful Hadith, and when we
read even in Muslim sources that people often created
Hadith to support the pet projects and political needs of
their masters, it is obvious that we are not likely to find
much if any authentic information about the historical
Mohammed in the Hadith.

The Sira and Maghazi


Although the names of some seventy historians are
known who are believed to have dealt with the life of
Mohammed and the prehistory and early history of Islam
up to the year 1000 CE, their works have not survived and
they are known only from quotations in later historians.
The Sira, or biography of Mohammed, is mainly known
from a work by Ibn Ishaq [c851704 -150 AH/767 CE]. Ibn
Ishaq was born into a family of Medina that made a living
procuring Hadith, and he followed the family trade, ending
his career in Baghdad. A number of early Muslim critics
held him to be a liar-! in regard to his Hadith, and it is
somewhat ironic that he has ended up being the earliest
Muslim historian whose work is relied upon by modern
Mohammedan apologists. Unfortunately, his work has not
survived in its original form. Rather it has been transmitted in two highly altered and differing recensions: the most
popular one made by Ibn Hisham [d. 218 AH/833 CE] and
another one made by Yunus b. Bukayr [d. 199 AH/814-815
csl. Some parts of Ibn Ishaq's work that were suppressed
by Ibn Hisham and Yunus b. Bukayr can be found in

Ji]

these isnads are fabrications created to


serve the theopolitical need, of their ~
inventors.
Indeed,
the fraudulent
_7:'
nature of most of the Hadith was detect~
~:~
ed already in olden times. Al-Bukhari,.:...
the first of the above-named collectors, . ',~ ...
I
.'
traveled from country to country to col- .
lect Hadith. He was successful beyond
his wildest dreams, discovering that
-,
"
more than 600,000 Hadith were current
~
-: ~ ':
in his day.2o Unfortunately,
careful
study convinced him that of that vast
number only around four thousand
,
were authentic - and European scholars
would discard at least half of that two- s;:;;:;~
thirds of one percent!
Islamic apologists face a terrible
problem in the Hadith. Assuming as
they do that the story of al-Bukhari is
true, how can they be sure that not even
one of those rejected 596,000 Hadith
had been authentic? How can they know
"ITHINK I DIED AND CAME BACK! THERE WAS A
that all of the four thousand are in fact
LIGHT AT THE END OF A DARK TUNNEL.., THE LAST
true reports of Mohammed's words and BRILLIANT
deeds? Surely, the story of al-Bukhari is THIING I RECALL IS TURNING IT OFF TO SAVE ELECTRICITY."
a powerful discreditation of the whole
<,

Parsippany, New Jersey

Winter 2001-2002

Page 15

quotations in the works of fourteen other historians writing 110 to 199 years after the Hegira. As a result, Ibn
Ishaq's Sira has to be reconstructed from the works of sixteen later historians!22 Doing so, however, is hardly worth
the effort, considering the poor reliability of the entire Sira
literature.
The Maghazi, it will be remembered, is the chronicle of
Mohammed's bandit raids and military activities. One of
the earliest authors known to have collected Maghazi legends was Wahb b. Munabbih, who was born 34 years after
the Hegira [654 CE] and lived until the year 110 AH [728
CE]. A fragment of his work has survived in the Heidelberg
Papyrus (early third/ninth
centuries) which contains
Maghazi traditions attributed to him. It is important to
note that Wahb did not know about the use of isnads - the
chains oftransmitters
used to establish the authenticity of
traditions.23 It seems likely then, that any isnads found in
scraps of early historians are not authentic but were the
creations oflater historians who wished to give the appearance that their traditions are anchored in the secure moorings of primal Mohammedanism.
Perhaps the major source for this part of Mohammed's
life is the Kitab al-Maghazi by al-Waqidi [1301747-207/822823].24 He was a Shiite and is credited with having first
established the chronology of the early years of Islam. He
made extensive use ofIbn Ishaq's work and is himself cited
extensively by the later popular historian al-Tabari [c224225/839-311/923]. Ibn Warraq sums up the historical significance - or lack thereof - ofIbn Ishaq and al-Waqidi:25

Thus, the biography of Mohammed is very much like


that of Jesus Christ: the later the biographer, the more he
'knows' about his character. The earliest sources know little or nothing about their lives, and biographies are built
up from 'facts' that successive retailers of tales 'discover' as
needed. It has been shown26 that the Sira (and almost certainly the Maghazi as well) depends to a large extent upon
the Hadith, which we have already seen are mostly factitious creations of theopolitical propagandists.
Moreover,
many Hadith have been shown to be etiological expansions
of Qur'anic passages, created to provide a causal biographical or historical background for particular 'revelations'.
This means that much of the Sira has been inferred from
ambiguous or unintelligible
passages in the Qur'an!
Would-be biographers of Mohammed are faced with a
chicken-or-egg conundrum at this point, since the Qur'an
itself would appear to be a somewhat special collection of
Hadith - many of which appear to have been manufactured for sale.
The unreliability of the Sira as a source of information
regarding the life of Mohammed affects even the supposedly foundational datum of his birth having been in the
year 570/571 CEo Lawrence Conrad-? has shown that well
into the second Muslim century, scholarly opinion concerning the birth date of the Prophet was spread over a space
of eighty-five years! If Muslim scholars during that crucial
formative century had not yet decided when Mohammed
had been born, what can we believe of the other dates that
later became 'facts' of Muslim chronology?
That the year 622 CE was indeed of early significance
Both Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi's reputations have sufto the evolving religion has been confirmed from coins
fered in recent years as a consequence of the trenchant
which mark it as the beginning of a new era. Nevertheless,
criticisms by Patricia Crone (especially in Meccan Trade
there is no seventh-century source that identifies this year
and the Rise of Islam, pp. 203-30), where she argues that
as the year of the Hegira. Two Nestorian Christian documuch of the classical Muslim understanding of the Koran
ments of 675 and 680 designate it as the year of "the rule
rests on the work of storytellers and that this work is of
of the Arabs." Casting yet
very dubious historical
another shadow on the docvalue. These storytellers
Well into the second Muslim century, trine of the Hegira as being
contributed to the tradition
a migration that took place
scholarly opinion concerning the
on the rise of Islam, and
in
622 CE is the Apocalypse
this is evident in the steady
birth
date
of
the
Prophet
was
spread
of
Samuel
al-Qalamun,
growth of information: "If
written in the eighth centuone storyteller should hapover a space of eighty-five years!
ry. In this Coptic Christian
pen to mention a raid, the
prophecy, despite its having been composed in Arabic in
next storyteller would know the date of this raid, while
the third would know everything that an audience might
Egypt, the term Hijra (Hegira) is employed for the Arab
wish to hear about it." Then, comparing the accounts of
conquerors themselves, not for their move from Mecca to
the raid of Kharrar by Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi, Crone
Medina!
shows that al-Waqidi, influenced by and in the manner of
So completely has the critical examination of Muslim
the storytellers, "will always give precise dates, locations,
sources revealed the unreliability of the Sira as a biogranames, where Ibn Ishaq has none, accounts of what trigphy and the weakness of all available biographical data, a
gered the expedition, miscellaneous information to lend
number of Soviet scholars have been able to argue quite
color to the event, as well as reasons why, as was usually
coherently that the historical Mohammed is as unreal as
the case, no fighting took place. No wonder that scholars
the historical Jesus! N. A. Morozov,28 for instance, proare fond of al-Waqidi: where else does one find such wonpounded the theory in 1930 that Mohammed and the first
derfully precise information about everything one wishes
caliphs were mythical figures and that Islam was a form of
to know? But given that this information was all
Judaism until the time of the Crusades. In the same year,
unknown to Ibn Ishaq, its value is doubtful in the
extreme. And if spurious information accumulated at this
Klimovich=' published
"Did Muhammad
Exist?" and
rate in the two generations between Ibn Ishaq and alargued that all our information on Mohammed is late and
Waqidi, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that even more
that his life was a necessary fiction springing from the
must have accumulated in the three generations between
euhemeristic notion that all religions have to have had a
the Prophet and Ibn Ishaq."
founder and that all the gods were once men. Yet another

Page 16

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

Soviet scholar, S. P. Tolstov, compared the myth of


Mohammed with the deified shamans of the Yakuts, et
al.,3o and argued that the practical purpose of the
Mohammed myth was to prevent the disintegration of a
political block of traders, nomads, and peasants which had
helped a new feudal aristocracy come to power.
It is not necessary to agree that Mohammed is a myth
in order to understand the practical significance of the fact
that such a view could be advanced in serious scholarly circles. Even if Mohammed did exist, we can know nothing
about him from the existing sources. He might as well have
been a myth.
The Witness of the Infidels
After considering the records of early non-Muslim
sources that reported on the Arab conquest or ancient writers who wrote about the caravan trade before or during the
supposed time of Mohammed, a writer styling himself "Ibn
al-Rawandi"31 integrated those dates into his deep understanding of the Muslim sources for their version of Islamic
history and concluded that
Once the Arabs had acquired an empire, a coherent
religion was required in order to hold that empire together and legitimize their rule. In a process that involved a
massive backreading of history, and in conformity to the
available Jewish and Christian models, this meant they
needed a revelation and a revealer (prophet) whose life
could serve at once as a model for moral conduct and as a
framework for the appearance ofthe revelation; hence the
Koran, the Hadith, and the Sira, were contrived and conjoined over a period of a couple of centuries. Topographically, after a century or so of Judaeo-Muslim monotheism centered on Jerusalem, in order to make Islam
distinctively Arab the need for an exclusively Hijazi origin
became pressing. It is at this point that Islam as we recognize it today - with an inner Arabian biography of the
Prophet, Mecca, Quraysh, Hijra, Medina, Badr, etc. - was
really born, as a purely literary artefact. An artefact,
moreover, based not on faithful memories of real events,
but on the fertile imaginations of Arab storytellers elaborating from allusive references in Koranic texts, the
canonical text of the Koran not being fixed for nearly two
centuries. This scenario makes at least as much sense of
the sources as the traditional account and eliminates
many anomalies.
From the vantage point of this skeptical analysis the
narrative related in the Sira, that purports to be the life
of the Prophet ofIslam, appears as a baseless fiction. The
first fifty-two years of that life, including the account of
the first revelations of the Koran and all that is consequent upon that, are pictured as unfolding in a place that
simply could not have existed in the way it is described in
the Muslim sources. Mecca was not a wealthy trading center at the crossroads of Hijazi trade routes, the Quraysh
were not wealthy merchants running caravan up and
town the Arabian peninsula from Syria to the Yemen, and
Muhammad, insofar as he was anything more than an
Arab warlord of monotheist persuasion, did his trading
far north ofthe Hijaz; furthermore, Mecca, as a sanctuary,
if it was a sanctuary, was of no more importance than
numerous others and was not a place of pilgrimage.
Parsippany, New Jersey

Space will not allow examination of all the non-Muslim


sources and other evidence that led al-Rawandi to these
startling opinions. However, a few points can be noted. The
tenth-century
Armenian
historian
Thomas Artsruni
(Ardsruni) understood Mohammed's base of operation to be
in Midian, not in South Arabia, and identified Mecca with
the Pharan located in Arabia Petreea, which comprised
modern Jordan down into the Sinai peninsula.vInformation on the qibla, the direction in which early
Muslims prayed, comes from the tenth-century Coptic bishop of Ashmunein in Egypt, Severus b. al-Muzaffa33 and
from the Muslim historian Baladhuri.s+ who tells us that
the qibla in the first mosque at Kufa (in Iraq) was westward, instead of south-southwest as would be the case if
present-day Mecca were its focus. Added to other information that Jerusalem, not Mecca, was the focus of early
Muslim worship, the archaeological discovery THAT an
ancient mosque under the Great Mosque of Wasit was not
oriented toward Mecca adds weight to the thesis that the
Muslim movement started in northern,
not southern,
Arabia, and that the traditional story of Mohammed's
movement from Mecca to Medina and back is a foundational myth concocted to completely Arabize a conquest history
which found it necessary to distance itself from Judaism
and Christianity for theopolitical reasons.
Investigation of the role of Mecca in the origin and
early evolution of Islam leads to the startling conclusion
that the Mecca of Muslim tradition never existed - perhaps
being as fictional as the Nazareth in the foundation myth
of Christianity. In the Mohammedan sources, Mecca is
depicted as a wealthy trading center, a natural crossroads
for caravan shipment of goods by prosperous merchants not
only from Yemen in the south to Syria and the Roman
empire in the north, but also for east-west trade as well.35
Unfortunately, the classical geographers who showed considerable interest in Arabia knew nothing about it. (The
Macoraba of Ptolemy, which some Muslim apologists claim
to have been Mecca, is derived from a different root and
clearly was not relatable to the present-day city in the
southern Hijaz.)36 The only place name in Ptolemy which
conceivably could be related to the name 'Mecca' is Moka, a
town in Arabia Petreea in present-day Jordan. Patricia
Crone-? sums up the evidence of non-Muslim sources as it
pertains to the myth of Mecca:
It is obvious that if the Meccans had been middlemen
in a long-distance trade of the kind described in the secondary literature, there ought to have been some mention
of them in the writings of their customers. Greek and
Latin authors had after all, written extensively about the
south Arabians who supplied them with aromatics in the
past, offering information about their cities, tribes, political organization, and caravan trade; and in the sixth century they similarly wrote about Ethiopia and Adulis. The
political and ecclesiastical importance of Arabia in the
sixth century was such that considerable attention was
paid to Arabian affairs, too; but of Quraysh and their trading center there is no mention at all, be it in the Greek,
Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, or other literature composed outside Arabia before the conquests. This silence is
striking and significant.

Winter 2001-2002

Page 17

This silence cannot be attributed to the fact that


sources have been lost, though some clearly have. The
fact is that the sources written after the conquests display not the faintest sign of recognition in their accounts
of the new rulers of the Middle East or the city from
which they came. Nowhere is it stated that Quraysh, or
the "Arab kings," were the people who used to supply
such-and-such regions with such-and-such goods; it was
only Muhammad himself who was known to have been a
trader. And as for the city, it was long assumed to have
been Yathrib. Of Mecca there is no mention for a long
time; and the first sources to mention the sanctuary fail
to give a name for it; whereas the first source to name it
fails to locate it in Arabia. [The Continuatio Arabica gives
Mecca an Abrahamic location between Ur and Harran.]
Jacob of Edessa knew of the Ka'ba toward which the
Muslims prayed, locating it in a place considerably closer
to Ptolemy's Moka than to modern Mecca or, in other
words, too far north for orthodox accounts of the rise of
Islam; but of the commercial significance of this place he
would appear to have been completely ignorant.
Whatever the implications of this evidence for the history of the Muslim sanctuary, it is plain that the Qurashi
trading center was not a place with which the subjects of
the Muslims were familiar.

Warraq, "Studies on Muhammad and the Rise ofIslam," in The Quest


for the Historical Muhammad, 44-45. [21] Ibid., 27. [22] Ibid., 27-28.
[23] Ibid., 26. [24] Ibid., 28. [25] Ibid., 29. [26] Ibid., 48. [27] Quoted
by Ibn al-Rawandi, op. cit., 102-103. [28] Cited by Ibn Warraq,
Muhammad, 49. [29] Cited ibid., 49. [30] Ibid., 49. [31] Ibn alRawandi, op. cit., 104-105. [32] Ibn Warraq, Muhammad, 33. [33]
Ibid., 33. [34] al-Rawandi, op. cit., 96. [35] Ibid., 98. [36] Ibid., 98. [37]
Patricia Crone, quoted by al-Rawandi, op. cit., 99.

FOR MORE INFORMATION


The present essay has been greatly dependent upon the excellent
books written or compiled by Ibn Warraq and published by
Prometheus Books. Readers wishing to attain a solid understanding
of the difficult subject of Mohammedan origins are urged to obtain
and read these books - the first of which can be obtained from
American Atheist Press:
Why I Am Not A Muslim,
Amherst, New York: 1995.

by Ibn Warraq. Prometheus

Books,

The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited and translated by


Ibn Warraq. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York: 2000. (Includes
articles by early-modern and recent critical scholars concerned with
the origins of Islam)
The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam's Holy Book, edited
by Ibn Warraq. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York: 1998.
(Includes articles by early-modern and recent critical scholars concerned with the origins of the Qur'an)

With the disappearance of Mecca from the list of documentable facts concerning the origins of Islam and the life
of Mohammed, the character known as Mohammed of
Mecca becomes as problematic as the character Jesus of Nazareth. Despite the claims of
some Christian archaeologists otherwise of
good repute, the archaeological and literary
evidence shows that the place now known as
I'M PRAYIt.JG THAT
Nazareth did not exist as an inhabited town
YOU DON'T EAT ME,
during the first centuries BCE and CEo Without
W~AT ARE YOU
a Nazareth to come from, Jesus of Nazareth
now seems as historical as the Wizard of Oz.
PRA)'l~GFOR?
Unexpectedly and quite surprisingly,
the
debunking of the Mecca of Muslim tradition
makes it now seem likely that Mohammed of
Mecca will soon be joining Jesus of Nazareth,
the Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan as a resident
of Never-Never Land.

PLEASE. OOtlT TALK


WHILE 11M SA'IING
GRACE,

REFERENCE NOTES
[1] Alphonse Mingana, "The Transmission of the
Koran," in The Origins of the Koran, edited by Ibn
Warraq, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998: 108. [2]
Ibn Warraq, "Introduction," in The Origins of the
Koran, 11. [3] Ibid., 13. [4] Mingana, op. cit., 98. [5]
Ibid., 99. [6] Ibid., 102. [7] Ibid., 102-103. [8] Ibid.,
104-106. [9] Ibid., 106. [10] Ibid., 107. [11] Ibid., 1Q8109. [12] Ibid., 109. [13] Ibid., 110. [14] Ibn Warraq,
Koran, 14. [15] Ibid., 15. [16] Ibid., 15. [17] Ibid., 16.
[18] Z. Sardar and Z. A. Malik, Muhammad for
Beginners, 1994, quoted by Ibn al-Rawandi, "Origins
of Islam: A Critical Look at the Sources," in The Quest
for the Historical Muhammad, edited and translated
by Ibn Warraq, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000:
89-90. [19] Ibn al-Rawandi, op. cit., 90. [20] Ibn

Page 18

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

A JYie.\:ragr:

/7'-0171

France

By Roger Lepeix
A speech given by Roger Lepeix, President of the French Free Thought National Federation,
on Saturday, 14 April 2001 at the 27th National Convention of
American Atheists in Orlando, Florida.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends,


My name is Roger Lepeix and I am President of the
French Free Thought National Federation. I give you my
fraternal greeting on behalf of the French Free Thinkers.
Together with my friend Christian Eyschen, we would like
to describe for you the French Free Thinkers' struggle in
defense of the democratically established right to the separation of churches from the state, a principle contained in
a law passed in France on December 9, 1905.
This is a main issue for French Free Thinkers, for several reasons: First of all, we know that only separation of
public affairs and religious questions can grant freedom of
conscience, which is the fundamental democratic right. For
us, this separation of public and private spheres is one of
the pillars of the Republic, the foundation of our established democratic and social rights. And, what is more, this
separation, if it is not a "French exception," is far from
being realized in most countries - although it would be an
institutional solution for a lot of current conflicts. Its realization in France is therefore a supporting point for spreading it throughout the world.
We stand firm on this separation, for most of it is the
work of free thinkers, at the beginning of the twentieth
century, who gained it after an intense and harsh struggle.
The separation of churches and the state, realized in
France in 1905, is the product of a long struggle, launched
at an international level by those who fought in defense of
Free Thought, and which has been associated in France
with the building of organized Free Thought for 150 years.
I'll only show you the national aspects, leaving to my friend
Christian Eyschen the job of discussing the subject at the
international level.
Historically, the fight of the Free Thinkers in France
started in the sixteenth century, with the Renaissance.
After fourteen centuries of Christian domination, a few
free thinkers had rediscovered independent thought, a heritage of antiquity. Indeed, the links of continuity had never
been completely destroyed, yet the domination of the
Church was so powerful that the slightest divergence from
the official doctrine was ferociously repressed. A lot of people lost their lives because of their boldness, but they
showed the path to what is called the Enlightenment. The
French Free Thought press has just published a book on
those great Free Thinkers in France. We are pleased to
give a copy as a present to your Convention.
Parsippany, New Jersey

The founding event which permitted the spreading of


Free Thought in France, and which was the origin of the
separation of churches from the state is obviously the
French revolution of 1789-1793. At that very period the
notion of citizen, possessing individual rights, and the
principle of equality of rights for all citizens were established. This equality of rights is the condition of separation
of churches from the state, the condition for introducing
secularism in the society. These two principles are not dissociable. Without separation, i.e., if there is one or more
official religion or ideology, there must be inequality of
rights between those who accept the authority of one of the
legal religions and those who do not recognize themselves
in any of them. American Atheists know this question quite
well, as far as I can see in their press.
In France, the French revolution and the establishment of the First Republic allowed progress towards separation. It was not an easy task, first of all because of the
armed opposition organized by the Church and a part of
the nobility backed by foreign countries, and because the
revolutionaries had to experiment and find their own orientation in the course of action. The first decisions were in
fact for integrating the priests into the state, for a better
control. It is only in 1795 that the first separation between
churches and state took place in France: religion was to be
regarded as a private matter.
This separation was not to last long. Reaction had
brought us Napoleon Bonaparte, who, for the needs of public order, came to an agreement with Pope Pius VII, in
1801. Actually, Napoleon was an Atheist, but he had understood quite well the use he could make of religion to rule
the country. Once more, priests were appointed civil servants and churches were public services.
The second separation of churches and state was even
shorter. In 1871, the Paris Commune took power for a few
weeks and issued decrees to establish social and democratic rights. It was crushed with terrible bloodshed and
the survivors were deported, mainly to New-Caledonia (in
the Pacific Ocean).
We had to wait until the third Republic when important and lasting steps forward were made. French Free
Thought is still defending these steps forward. In 1879, a
majority of representatives were republican, in favor of
secularism and of amnesty for the leaders of the Paris
Commune.

Winter 2001-2002

Page 19

During this period, great laws appeared that organized free and compulsory public education, on a secular
basis. Despite many things that have been put into question since this period, it is still a major part of our republican heritage. The decisions made by those republican representatives helped to draw the majority of our people out
of ignorance. They set the basis of a democratic organization of society and eventually achieve, in 1905, the third
separation of churches and the State, which is still
enforced today - and we are still defending it.
From the beginning, Free Thinkers have been the promoters of that fight. In those days, French Free Thought
was very powerful, and a great majority of the National
Assembly (i.e. the House of Representatives) were free
thinkers and they were leading the public campaign. A
great World Convention of Free Thought took place in 1904
in Rome (Italy), with numerous and important delegations
from all the countries, and the issue of separation was
widely debated.
The president of the parliamentary commission that
prepared the draft of the law-was Ferdinand Buisson, president of the Free Thinkers' National Association. The
report on the law was made by Aristide Briand, himself
one of the most important free thinkers. On 21 March
1905, the Free Thought Association holding a general
assembly in Paris invited the representatives to vote "a
law on separation of Churches and the State, without
delay nor interruption."
One of the major questions at the time was the following question: Do we need an Atheist or a secular republic?
Some Free Thinkers wanted an Atheist republic, but
Aristide Briand argued that an Atheist republic would not
respect freedom of conscience, and therefore would have
created different rights between citizens, according to their
opinions. To maintain equality of rights, there should not
be any official ideology or philosophy.
The 1905 law was voted under the Free Thinkers' pressure together with all the republicans. That law separates
all the churches and the State and organizes society on a
secular basis. It establishes freedom of conscience and forbids the State to recognize or give money to religions. At
the same time, it allows independent cults, out of any state
control: it is one of the major aspects of freedom of conscience.
That law goes very far in many details: it organizes the
withdrawal of church buildings to the state and the future
use of church buildings. It forbids religious signs to be
posted on public places, etc. A few examples will show you
how far secularism was to go :
Church bells can be heard but the ringing is decided by
local authorities not by priests
Public bank holidays are the same as before, but the
religious origin of some ofthem is ignored because of their
inclusion in that law.
The republicans had to make a few concessions to gain
a majority of votes in favor of the law. Thus, they accepted
that, in order to grant freedom of cult, some people could
ask for a priest in some public places if they were unable
to attend a religious meeting (e.g., persons in prisons, hospitals, army camps or boarding schools). But they had to
accept those corresponding expenditures on the budget of
Page 20

the state. That has led to many major "drifts" by succeeding governments.
That law is still enforced today, in spite of many distortions of its provisions made by the Vichy Regime during
WWII, under the Nazi Occupation. For example, all
belongings of the Roman Catholic Church, sequestered by
the separation law, were given back to the priests by a law
of February 5,1941. The Catholic Church still owns them.
The elected authorities during the Liberation in 1945, did
not re-established the law in its original form, and no government has done it since then. French Free Thought is
still campaigning for the full and whole enforcement ofthe
1905 law.
Presently, there are many attacks against the separation law, and we can only make a list of some of those
attacks:
First of all, one has to bear in mind that a part of
France was under German domination in 1905. Therefore,
the law was not enforced there. Since then, no government
has had the courage to spread the law to Alsace-Moselle
(eastern France). On the contrary, in the current framework of "regionalization," the German statutes of AlsaceMoselle, with four established religions, is the motivation
of our representatives. They want to spread it to the other
regions under appropriate forms.
The Vatican and the European

Union

In fact, the main attack comes from the European


Union. That Union is of clerical origin: it was created by
Catholics under Vatican supervision, and its leaders officially claim their religious origin in the Charters which are
being adopted by the member countries. The French separation between churches and the State is therefore regarded by the European Union as something remaining to be
destroyed, as a non-exportable product to be erased in
front of "harmonization."
A major operation is also currently taking place to reintroduce religion in public education. Up to now, only private religious schools (and public schools in AlsaceMoselle) included religious lessons. Through compulsory
curriculum and official school books, and under government pressure, Jesus Christ and his miracles are having a
major "come back" in schools that were based upon reason.
Those attacks against the 1905 law are only one aspect
of the challenging of social rights and democratic liberties
in France under the pretext of European "harmonization."
You must be aware that the governments of the European
Union organize their own dependence
towards the
Brussels decisions. Whatever their political parties, they
have all decided that European decisions should prevail
over national laws, and now they rely on Brussels to challenge in fact a series of rights that were gained on a
national level. The French National Federation of Free
Thought defines its role and objectives in the organization
of resistance, in defense of republican heritage and secularism. We define in this way our main axis for action, and
we invite all democrats to work together with us in the
directions.
The National Federation of Free Thought organized a
great demonstration in Paris on 9 December 1995, on the

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

90th anniversary of the separation law. There were 10,000


people, who joined in the streets to demand the enforcement of the 1905 law, abrogation of anti-secularism laws,
and the end of the clerical statutes of Alsace-Moselle.
Afterwards, we opened an international defense of that
separation law, when we organized a great meeting near
Paris in August 1997, on the day when Pope John-Paul II
arrived in Paris. In spite of thousands of policemen in the
French capital, we opened the way to international collaboration in defense of separation of churches from the state.
We went on with a demonstration in Brussels the following
year, in the very heart of the European headquarters.
Christian Eyschen will talk to you about these issues.
For many years, the major axis of our federation has
been the regrouping of all those who want to defend the
republican heritage. As I told you before, for historical reasons, notably linked" to the French Revolution and to the
Third Republic, social and democratic rights are based on
a national level. The anti-republican attack therefore takes
the form of a regional Europe that is short-circuiting the

TFiL.K

national level, in order to challenge the rights and impose


social regression. La Libre Pensee is on the front line to
resist and this position is due to its traditional part: It was
organized during the nineteenth century, when the republicans were ascending, and its history is associated with that
of the democratic laws of the 3rd republic.
From the beginning, it was the meeting place of different republican opinions, of militants from the Labor movement, of democratic intellectuals, etc. Therefore, it has been
the natural crossroad for common tasks. It has shown its
ability to rally people for clear and practical aims, without
any particular political domination, for the sake of a true
defense of common rights
Today, we are going on the same path. We consider that
civilization is at stake and we want to defend and improve
the laws we have inherited, against all those who want us
to go back to the fifteenth century. We are aware that it is
an international fight and that's why we wanted to let you
know about it.

Ai?JOUT YOUR. POe:T"IC JUSTICe.

WeRe. IiOl.1)//IIG n ..us

71iE.Y

a/G 13001<8UA.NING

WM~/r~OTOUTOrHRN~-ANO-~oRNeh
llOWN TMe./A. CHLJRCf4."

Parsippany, New Jersey

Winter 2001-2002

Page 21

American Atheist Interview


With William B. Davis
Reported by Conrad F. Goeringer

INTRODUCTION
William B. Davis is best known as the infamous 'smoking man' in the hit television series The X-Files. His acting
career has included roles on Sliders, the Outer Limits,

North of 60, Nightmare Cafe, MacGyver, Airwolf, Wiseguy


and many other programs. He is also the founder of the
William B. Davis Centre for Actor's Study based in
Vancouver, Canada.
Naturally, we were excited when Davis spoke at the
American Atheists Convention last April in Orlando,
Florida, where he informed, provoked and delighted a
packed auditorium as he spoke on being a "Skeptic in an
Alien World."
Davis is a second-generation
Atheist with interests in evolutionary
biology. He graduated with a degree in
Philosophy from the University
of
Toronto, but left academia to pursue
his real avocation in theater. Along the
way, he has maintained an insatiable
curiosity, and remains today a voracious reader.
American Atheist magazine staffer
Conrad
Goeringer
and American
Atheist Newsletter Editor Carl-Eric
Boberg sat down with Davis for several
hours of intellectual free-for-all that
included the substance of this interview. Carl-Eric and I were impressed
by Davis' familiarity with a wide range
of writers in diverse fields such as psychology, biology, history, and philosoWilliam
phy. In the perennial 'nature or nurture' debate, Davis expressed the need
to explore evolutionary and biological information about
sexes and races; yet, on the other hand, he drew no politicalor social implications from all of this. Politically, he
describes himself as a Democrat and progressive.
While we talked about biology and aliens from space,
we also couldn't resist touching upon his career in what
surely will be one of the most popular and perhaps even
influential programs in the history of television - The XFiles. It is a role Davis has played with considerable force.
More poignant for both myself and Carl-Eric, though, was
Page 22

the pleasure of meeting a man who is far more than


celebrity gloss. Articulate, literate, and familiar with a
wide area of subjects, from philosophy and science to literature, and a delightful conversationalist to boot, William
B. Davis was a perfect subject for an interview that awaits
a sequel.

THE INTERVIEW
AA: Tell us about your academic career as a philosophy
major.
DAVIS: It was a little bit accidental in a way, since when
I went to university, we didn't have
any theater programs in any university in Canada at the time, and what
there was at the University of Toronto
was a very extensive extra curricular
theater
program with a full-time
director and that's where you went if
you were interested in acting. Donald
Sutherland was there when I attended;
so there you were really to do an
extracurricular activity and you could
choose what to do academically without having to worry about "how would
I get a job?" So, I went into philosophy
for interest's sake entirely, knowing
that I was eventually going into the
theater.
After I was in philosophy for a
while, I toyed with staying in. I was in
awe of some of my classmates and
people a little farther ahead, and I
B. Davis
wondered "Do I really have the intellectual chops for this, to work at this level?" Most of the
emphasis in the department was on the history of philosophy.
AA: You're a second generation Atheist. While in college,
did you have a skeptical attitude toward the paranormal?
Was it something you thought about at the time?
DAVIS: I was always skeptical of ghosts, or aliens, or
whatever it might be.

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

AA: When you started your career and were offered a job
on The X-Files, how did you react? You must have read
some of the scripts ...
DAVIS: Well, I read one script, and the whole show from
the beginning to end was by the seat of their pants. We
often didn't know until the day before shooting what script
we were going to use. I knew from the pilot, which set out
the basic elements of the show, that it would be about the
paranormal.
AA: Did you think the show would be that enduring and
take off in the many directions which it has?
DAVIS: I didn't think for a minute The X-Files would be
successful. I've now done about 35 episodes!
AA: Within the skeptical community, one senses the attitude that many programs dealing with the paranormal and
the occult, even on a fictional basis, convey a power and
subtle message to people. Some might feel this undermines
the status of reason and skeptical thinking in the culture.
DAVIS: I had some concern about that with The X-Files,
whether participating in a show like this was substantiating or engendering belief in the paranormal. I guess I
could have said NO, I WON'T DO IT, but I don't think I was
just comforting myself when I finally decided that this
really is a fictional show and nothing more. I don't think
it's changed anyone's mind, though it may serve to reinforce certain beliefs some people may have.
The programs I think are more insidious are the pseudo-documentaries, or even a show like Psi-Factor which
imbeds and announces itself as if it were based on something. I don't think Chris Carter [producer of The X-Files]
believes in the paranormal.
I know Frank Spotznitz
doesn't; he's another executive producer. Chris Carter, on
the other hand, does believe in government conspiracy, and
I think he may be conveying that message subtly.

pretense of a public broadcasting service. But if I were an


American, I'd be up in arms about the hijacking of this
terrific medium of television to mass-market forces. What
it's done is create a situation where advertisers don't want
a market of over 35. They want a young audience and they
tailor their programming to that audience for a couple of
reasons. One, they're more susceptible and they might have
less resistance to advertising.
AA: But isn't this a kind of conspiracy theory? Aren't you
giving younger people, especially the Internet generation,
less credit than they deserve?
DAVIS: It doesn't really matter. What
advertisers think so, and as a result all
is designed for that group. There is no
on television, no programs being made

matters is that the


of the programming
adult programming
for me as a viewer.

AA: You do a good deal of reading in science including


works by Richard Dawkins. There is an explosion of scientific information in mass media. Do you accept the proposition that people are becoming more scientifically illiterate
and immersed in pseudoscience?
DAVIS: I don't know what's happening in terms of scientific
literacy. It certainly does seem that there is an increase in
belief in pseudoscience, alternative medicine, those sorts of
things. One example is a bill passed by the Private
Members (legislative members) in Canada to allow doctors
to prescribe alternative medicine and treatments against
the advice of their own College of Physicians.
AA: If you took all of the topics which skeptics discuss,
from UFOs to fortune telling and other areas of the paranormal, are there any of these that when you're falling
asleep at night you might say, "Well, maybe there's something to this ...?"

AA: Is there a danger in the fact that the media have


become so compelling that they can seriously blur the line
separating fact and fiction?

DAVIS: Well, there's certainly a whole range of what


doesn't, because so many of them are based on the assumption that there is a force which science has been unable to
detect. And if we were to believe in mental telepathy or an
afterlife or those sorts of things, it would challenge the
whole underpinning of science. So, those, I don't know.
There could be aliens flying around in UFOs, I guess, without challenging our essential scientific beliefs. I don't lose
much sleep over that, but it's possible. And I do slip into
magical thinking occasionally, like the situation with my
water skiing coach. I had some trouble with my shoulder
and he recommended that I use a magnet, and for some reason I was prepared to believe that he knew something that
the whole scientific establishment didn't (laughs). I don't
know why I slavishly applied this magnet to my shoulder
for the longest time.
But this is the danger in this thing. A friend recommended that I try some kind of herbal remedy. I got it, but
I didn't end up taking it and much to my relief the condition
got better! But if I had taken the remedy, I could have
ended up thinking "This caused it to get better!"

DAVIS: I think so, I think there is a danger, yeah. These


shows on the paranormal certainly do suggest something
about the culture. What concerns me is how television is
used and what it is becoming. In Canada, we still have the

AA: During your talk at the American Atheist Convention,


you asked for a show of hands over a couple of questions
including: "Do you believe there is intelligent life elsewhere
in the universe?" Did the result surprise you?

AA: This brings us back to the issue of hidden agendas.


Many Christian fundamentalists
see Hollywood and the
entertainment industry as having a hidden agenda. Do you
see any evidence of that?
DAVIS: That's a good question. I don't see a hidden agenda in our show other than possibly Chris's bias over government conspiracy. I think there is an up-front agenda in
West Wing, and I think it argues eloquently for a move to
left of center, and I'd describe myself as being on that part
of the political spectrum.
AA: Have you ever thought about running for office?
DAVIS: I've thought about ... (sighs). I've never been
asked. The real danger is that you might get elected!

Parsippany, New Jersey

Winter 2001-2002

Page 23

DAVIS: Yes, a great many hands went up for that. It didn't


surprise, even though I wouldn't have raised my hand. The
coincidence of intelligent life developing on our planet
seems so 'coincidental' in so many ways that the likelihood
of there being someone out there similar us is quite
remote. But, the arguments can be made on both sides, and
ultimately this is a question for scientists to settle. It's not
a foolish position.
The universe may well have plenty of life; I'm not saying there is not life, I mean intelligent, self-conscious life;
but when you look at the number of species on this planet
only one has really asked this question. Unless you allow
the argument that evolution is progressive. When we used
to think that it was progressive, then we used to think that
intelligent life had formed on other planets. But if intelligent life is accidental and coincidental rather than progressive, then the chances are low.
AA: Why do you think people want to believe that there is
something or someone 'out there'?
DAVIS: (laughing) "We're alone," or "we're not alone." Who
cares? Muldur's slogan on the show is "I want to believe,"
not "I want to investigate!" His bias is right up front.
AA:

Same line of questioning:

did you see the movie

Contact based on Carl Sagan's book?


DAVIS: I saw the movie. Just the shots of those towers the radio telescopes - reminds one oftotems. I thought the
movie was even a bit hokey. But this goes back to your
question of why we seem to need this, the belief in the possibility of life elsewhere. I think that's an area for genuine
investigation at a hard evolutionary and psychological
level. So many societies have believed in gods; that need to
have 'something' superior to us, something outside of us,
may have some kind real kind of evolutionary roots. It
could even be hard-wired into our brains.
AA: How would this fit in to biological evolution?
DAVIS: It could be related to the hierarchical groups and
the need for someone more powerful with whom you can
forge an alliance. Those who didn't accept or want or like
the idea of that, they didn't survive - they wandered off
into the wilderness or died off, and they didn't have a lot of
descendants. The ones who congregated and cohered may
have had more offspring.
AA: Many religious people look at this emphasis on nature
and evolutionary behavior and insist that without a 'higher power' there can be no moral code.
DAVIS: We've just been discussing some thing and I've
been wrestling with my conscience about things like
"Should I have been involved in this show?" How could I
even be asking that question without belief in a supreme
being or a revealed moral code? But I do. This raises that
other question of whether we have any purpose in life.
That's why Beckett writes plays like Waiting for Godot.
What do we do? We don't have the help from a Christian or
other god, a point of reference, so we have to create our
own. And we do - we create what I call an "infrastructure"
Page 24

which gives us this thing called 'meaning' and if we are


sensible people, we create an infrastructure
that is
humane and cares for other people, that respects other
peoples' rights, understands that doing unto others as you
would have them do unto you makes sense, it's a good
practice. And we develop our empathy with other people
and our codes of behavior.
AA: Do you see this as an integral part of evolution, then?
DAVIS: Yes, I don't think there's any doubt. For those
early bands of humans to have survived, this had to be
hard-wired in our brains in some way. Dawkins talks
about this.
AA: What are some of your favorite books? Who are the
authors who have influenced you the most?
DAVIS: Well, in recent years, Richard Dawkins, E. O.
Wilson, Jared Diamond. I enjoyed Consilience. As far as
my early academic days, all of the historical philosophers
got me thinking - Locke, Berkeley, Hume. Descartes got
me being skeptical, although I didn't arrive at the same
conclusions. At the end of my university career, I was left
in a way not knowing any more than when I started, but I
understood the questions a lot better!
To me, the big eye-openers today are in biology. Holy
Smoke! We're learning things about ourselves we had no
idea about twenty years ago! From my reading in recent
years, the interesting things are coming from what biology
is telling us. We don't know how far this will take in terms
of sociobiology and evolutionary biology.
AA: In your talk, you mentioned Freud and psychoanalysis was presented as a scientific theory. Can you elaborate?
Has Freud influenced your outlook?
DAVIS: Well, another author to add to the mix is
Frederick Cruz. He was the one who for me first challenged ideas about memory regression and how memory
operates, and that let me to some other writers. Memory
doesn't work the way hypnotic or recovered memory say it
does, and that gets into the whole issue of alien abduction ... why people believe they've been abducted by aliens.
The process becomes suggested through the present context, they're not actually discovering memory, it just feels
that way. We've had this problem in acting teaching, where
some people believe that through voice release work memories are being uncovered; but in fact they're only suggesting emotional experiences.
AA: Can you elaborate? Are you saying that the craft of
acting incorporates some kind of psycho-drama element?
DAVIS: I haven't attacked this as an acting teacher, but I
think that the work in biology and the work by Frederick
Cruz that we've been discussing rebuts most of what's
been going on in actor training since Stanislavski, and it
certainly challenges Strasberg and the whole method
which is largely based on discovering repressed unconscious. Even Stanislavski defines acting as creating the
conscious conditions that will release the unconscious.
Well, if there's no unconscious in the Freudian sense, that's

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

probably not a good technique, right? So there are implications for acting and actor training in all of this new science.
AA: What do you think about the future of electronic
media such as the Internet, and its influence on movies
and television?
DAVIS: That's an interesting one! I read something recently
about people who describe themselves as "ex-Internet
users" now, people who have actually abandoned the
Internet. That's one of the questions that's come up with
the 'dot-com' market. Did we think too much of the
Internet, did we over-rate it as to what it would be, couldbe, will-be? It mayor may not be an integral part of our
lives. It's obviously going to serve some useful purposes,
but it's like going to a library that has no catalogue. And it's
been hijacked by economics - it's all about selling something, so if I want information and I go to the Internet, I
get it from somebody who's selling something.
AA: Is this necessarily bad?
DAVIS: It's bad if that's the only information you can get,
and it's certainly bad if you confuse it with genuine
research. So I think somehow, just as we've talked about
television, the Internet is gradually deteriorating in its
quality of 'service' as it's being turned into a commercial
enterprise.
AA: What about it being a medium for independent producers and writers, and people who want to get into media
but in the past have been excluded? Could the Internet be
a liberatory force?
DAVIS: Well, it's certainly true that you can publish things
on the Internet cheaply, so it can be a kind of vanity press.
And as a way to market your capabilities to others, it can
be quite useful. But again we're talking about it as a commercial bazaar. Yes, there will be a way to make your movie
digitally and cheaply, put it on the Internet and have some
people see it. So that has advantages in leveraging you forward in your career, but is it a big service to mankind? No,
I don't think so...
AA: What about the claim that it is a medium that governments can't control and allows dissident groups to have
a voice? Is that exaggerated?
DAVIS: No, there's some value in that, that you have
access to opinions and thinking
that is otherwise
repressed. The downside is that you have all sorts of
groups speaking out, and that means that the Internet can
smother itself. "Too much stuff," you might say. Bishop
Berkeley can have his tree chopped down and thanks to the
size of the Internet, no one will hear it!
On the other hand, the Internet does create some communities that were not easily created otherwise. People
enjoy that, and it probably has something to do with our
brain's hard wiring and tribalism and finding new units of
cohesion, and I think that's going to continue.
AM: What are your plans know that the X-Files is in its
last season?

DAVIS: I have the William B. Davis Center for Acting


which I oversee, but it's fairly well delegated to other people. I've been working on some other acting roles, and I'm
doing some writing which includes a film script. In this
movie, the two leading characters are married; one is a
biologist, the other a psychologist, they're both distinguished university professors. They started their marriage
with her as the people person, he's the 'hard' scientist, but
he's become a follower of E. O. Wilson, and now he thinks
he knows something about people, but it's not the same
stuff she knows!
AA: Do I hear left-brain versus right-brain

here?

DAVIS: You could! And you hear nature and nurture.


There a conflict and the marriage is on the rocks, but what
drives the story is that he has discovered a skull that
shows that blacks and Caucasians are separate races, and
the university does not want this information published ...
AA: Don't give away the story ... But if there are biological
differences between or among certain groups of people,
maybe even substantial, do you want to try to derive a
moral or political statement from that body of facts? As an
ex-philosophy student, are you trying to get an 'ought' from
an 'is'?
DAVIS: No! I don't think so... but once you say "this information isn't useful" or "we don't need to know about this,
it isn't any good," you're saying that there's something
about the condition and the human evolutionary basis that
we aren't going to look at. And if you're like his wife, or the
Christians and you believe that we are divine or special
creatures, that doesn't matter. If nurture is really the dominant force, it doesn't matter. But if we really want to
understand how human beings work, how can we leave a
part of the puzzle out? Put another way: have you ever
tried to do a jig-saw puzzle with one piece missing? It's a
lot more difficult.
While some things in biology may have awkward social
implications, do we not look at it? Look at a basketball
game. The NBA is populated by blacks of West African
descent, marathons
are populated
by Africans and
Kenyans.
AA: Michael Shermer just devoted a whole issue of Skeptic

Magazine to this subject ...


DAVIS: I know he did. And he's quoting Stephen
Gould, and I don't think he's right.

Jay

AA: Does this research, then, have any particular moral or


political implications for you?
DAVIS: None. I was looking for information and writing
about a situation, and I wanted to do a situation where scientists found out something which people didn't want to
know about - as scientists have over the generations. Look
at Galileo. But I wanted it to be completely believable that
people wanted the character to keep quiet about it. I also
didn't want the stereotype of good guys and bad guys. I
wanted something more complicated than that.
See Davis Interview on page 52

Parsippany, New Jersey

Winter 2001-2002

Page 25

Emill] Dickinson:
Pagan Sphinx
By Gary Sloan
"That no Flake of [snow] fall on you or them - is a wish that
would be a Prayer, were Emily not a Pagan."
-Letter of 1878 to Catherine Sweetser
"Knew I how to pray, to intercede for your [broken]
Foot were intuitive - but I am but a Pagan."
-Letter of 1885 to Helen Hunt Jackson
When Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
died, she was virtually unknown to the
public. Only seven of her poems had been
published, several without permission,
and they attracted little notice. Today,
she is widely hailed as one of the greatest American poets, perhaps the greatest. Her poems are staple cargo in junior
high, high school, and college literature
courses. Never married, she lived almost
her entire life in the capacious family
home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Her
father was an influential political figure lawyer, judge, legislator, first citizen. From
about the age of thirty on, she rarely left the house
or entertained guests. She communicated mainly by
notes and letters. She habitually dressed in white. Her
sequestered lifestyle earned her the epithet Queen Recluse.
Few people, then or now, know she was also Queen Pagan.
She died a barbed foe of Christianity.
"All men say 'What' to me," she told Thomas Wentworth
Higginson, an eminent litterateur and dutiful correspondent. The phraseology - eccentric, pixie, and oblique -is
vintage Dickinson. She meant people were baffled by her,
even though, she protested, she couldn't fathom why. Since
Higginson - now, through the fiendish vagaries of fortune,
branded a doltish mentor oblivious to her genius - would
later describe her as his "partially cracked poetess at
Amherst," she had picked a dubious confidant. Recounting
his first meeting with her twenty years before, Higginson in
a posthumous tribute wrote: "She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour's interview." And,

Gary Sloan is a retired English professor in Ruston,


Louisiana. He is a frequent contributor to freethought
publications,
including American Atheist.
He also
writes commentary
for the Scripps Howard News
Service.
Page 26

perhaps, in a lifetime.
Dickinson's enigmatic nature shrouds her evolution
from Christian manque to pagan. She had histrionic
propensities that obscure the line between her true
beliefs and those she feigned. Intermittently in
her 1,775 poems and approximately 1,100
extant letters (many poems were incorporated into the letters), she struck poses and
adopted personas. "When I state myself
as the Representative of my verse," she
told Higginson, "it does not mean me but a supposed person." In early professions of impiety, she had a penchant for
hyperbole and self-dramatization that
render her claims hard to evaluate.
Later, an authentic infidel, she accommodated orthodox sensibilities. Long
after she had chucked belief in a hereafter, she continued to quote promissory
biblical verses to assure bereaved relatives
and neighbors they would be reunited with
their deceased loved ones. When she was herself bereaved, she accepted the ministrations of
clergymen. She even solicited platitudes on immortality, plucking "at a twig of evidence."
In the late 1850s, she began couching her thoughts in
a cryptic style that muffled her heterodoxy. "Tell all the
truth," she advised, "but tell it slant." Occasionally, she was
too oblique - some might say cunning - to be scrutable.
"The whole truth about Emily Dickinson will elude us
always," said Richard Sewall, her biographer. "She seems
almost willfully to have seen to that."
From an early age, the seeds of heresy lay dormant in
her. As an adolescent, she had a willful streak that bridled
under compulsion. Immensely intelligent and observant,
she kept her own counsel. "How," she marveled, "do people
live without any thoughts? How do they get the strength to
put on their clothes in the morning?" Her mother she
classed with the mindless. She never joined the family
church because she couldn't testify to any visitation of the
Holy Spirit, the ticket for membership. She stopped attending in her late twenties. At fifteen, after one of the revivals
that periodically convulsed Amherst, she wrote her friend
Abiah Root: "I was almost persuaded to be a Christian. I
thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly.
But I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

to me. One by one my old habits returned and I cared less


for religion than ever."
Her disinclination to swap this world for the next one
waxed ever stronger: "The world allured me & in an
unguarded moment I listened to her siren voice. From that
moment I seemed to lose interest in heavenly things.
Friends reasoned with me & told me of the danger I was in.
I felt my danger & was alarmed, but I had rambled too far
to return & ever since my heart has been growing harder."
Anon, the siren world had lured her to the precipice: "I
do not feel I could give up all for Christ, were I called to
die."
Shocking words from a fifteen-year-old catechized at
the First Church in Amherst, a Congregationalist assembly.
There, ministers blazoned hell in all its lurid specificity as
the wages of sin. For years, sermons on the Day of Doom
spooked Dickinson. At twenty-three, she wrote Elizabeth
Holland, an enduring friend and wife of a popular author:
"The minister today preached about death and judgment,
and what would become ofthose who behaved improperly and somehow it scared me. He preached such an awful sermon I didn't think I should ever see you again until the
Judgment Day. The subject of perdition seemed to please
him somehow." The Hollands embraced a "creedless,
churchless, ministerless christianity" and an avuncular,
"sunshiny" god. Their friendship helped Emily slough off
lingering anxieties about the fire that never quenches. Hell,
she would later write, "defies typography."
At Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she spent
two terms after she graduated from Amherst Academy in
1847, proselytism was rampant. Thrice weekly, the founder
of the school, Mary Lyon, exhorted the students in plenary
assembly. Once a week, she counseled them in groups.
Guest sermons abounded. "Many," wrote Dickinson, "are
flocking to the ark of safety." She wasn't among them. On
the basis of self-inventories, students at Holyoke were classified as Christians, Hopers, or No-Hopers. Dickinson left
as she came, a No-Hoper.
After she returned to Amherst in the summer of 1848,
she sporadically rued her lapsed state, albeit her sincerity
is hard to gauge. In letters to pious schoolmates, she descanted on her intractable naughtiness: "I am one of the lingering bad ones, and so do I slink away, and pause, and
ponder, and ponder, and pause, and do work without knowing why - not surely for this brief world, and more sure it
is not for heaven - and I ask what this message of Christ
means." She was a menace to the innocent: "You are out of
the way of temptation and out of the way of the tempter I didn't mean to make you wicked - but I was - and am and shall be - and I was with you so much that I couldn't
help contaminate."
She could simulate the forlorn heroine in a mawkish
tearjerker: ''What shall we do my darling, when trial grows
more, and more, when the dim, lone light expires, and it's
dark, so very dark, and we wander, and know not where,
and cannot get out of the forest - whose is the hand to help
us, and to lead, and forever guide us?" In the next breath,
she segues into an impish identification with the archfiend:
"Where do you think I've strayed and from what new
errand returned. I have come from 'to and fro, and walking
up and down' the same place that Satan hailed from when
God asked where he'd been." [Job 1:7]
Parsippany, New Jersey

By the mid-1850s, her break with orthodoxy was


irreparable. She had embarked on a quest for truth unfettered .by doctrinal constraints and herd prescriptions. Like
Herman Melville, she forsook the safe port of conventionalism for "landlessness" - deep, earnest, independent, risky
musings. The perilous odyssey exhilarated her: ''You are
nipping in the bud fancies which I let blossom," she wrote
Abiah. "The shore is safer, but I love to buffet the sea - I can
count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant waters, and
hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love the danger!" To
her pious friends, that way madness lay. To Dickinson, salvation:
Much Madness is divinest SenseTo a discerning EyeMuch Sense-the
starkest Madness'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevailAssent-and
you are saneDemur-you're
straightway dangerousAnd handled with a ChainAs her paganism ripened, she demurred at Christian
nonsense.
She twitted the glitzy New Jerusalem vouchsafed to the
elect. It was a thronged "Corporation" devoid of privacy, an
interminable Sunday where "recess never comes." Worse,
the voyeuristic proprietor never traveled or slept: "If God
could make a visit / Or ever took a Nap / So not to see usbut they say / Himself a telescope / Perennial beholds us."
Even the saints didn't quite believe in the "Heaven further
on" - despite opiate assurances from the pulpit: "Narcotics
cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul."
Everlasting bliss was an oxymoron. Happiness lay in
the chase, not the catch: "To possess is past the instant / We
achieve the Joy- / Immortality contented / Were anomaly."
Dickinson had never been keen on eternity. At fifteen, she
wrote Abiah: "Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you. I
often get to thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I
almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must
forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death
would be a relief to so endless a state of existence." Ecstasy
fed on evanescence: "That it will never come again / Is what
makes life so sweet."
Pluckier than Pascal, Emily wagered on this life: "I cannot help esteem / The 'Bird within the Hand' / Superior to
the one / The 'Bush' may yield me / Or may not / Too late to
choose again." Besides, ''Who has not found the heaven
below / Will fail of it above." Eternity was "obtained in time"
not as an infinite temporal progression, but in moments of
heightened sensibility to life. The soul, she guessed, is
inseparable from the body: "The Spirit lurks within the
Flesh / Like Tides within the Sea / That make the Water
live, estranged / What would the Either be?"
The Christian god she treated with sarcasm, contempt,
indignation,
and amusement.
Her parents,
she told
Higginson, "address an Eclipse every morning, whom they
call their 'Father.'" The Eclipse was also Papa Above, the
gentleman in the air, the little God with Epaulettes, a small
Deity, our old neighbor, and (now paraphrasing) a conceited
tyrant, vindictive dunce, thievish scofflaw, lethal intruder,

Winter 2001-2002

Page 27

peeping Tom, homicidal burglar, Shylock, cold assassin, and


sadistic inquisitor.
As in a Kafka novel, the Inquisitor arraigns us for an
unspecified offense: "The Crime, from us, is hidden,"
though "he is presumed to know." In an indiscreet moment,
he made us wicked, but we must sue him for pardon:
"'Heavenly Father' - take to thee / The supreme iniquity /
Fashioned by thy candid Hand / In a moment contraband/ Though to trust us seem to us / More respectful - 'We are
Dust'- / We apologize to thee for thine own Duplicity."
In letters to intimates, Dickinson routinely zinged the
duplicitous Papa: "Vinnie [her sister] rocks her Garden and
moans that God won't help her. I suppose he is too busy getting angry with the Wicked every day." "God's little Blond
Blessing we have long deemed you, and hope his so-called
'Will' will not compel him to revoke you." "Why," she mused
to Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited a posthumous collection
of her poems, "should we censure Othello [for the jealous
murder of Desdemona] when the Criterion Lover says,
'Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me'?" After President
Garfield's abortive battle for life, she wrote her cousins
Louise and Frances Norcross: "When we think of his lone
effort to live and its bleak reward, the mind turns to the
myth 'for His mercy endureth forever,' with confiding revulsion."
Her attitude toward Jesus was mixed. As risen Savior,
he was a fickle suitor who pledged his troth then hightailed
it to points unknown: "Within thy Grave! / Oh no, but on
some other flight- / Thou only camest to mankind / To rend
it with Good night." While he gallivanted through the
galaxies, his followers mourned his sham demise: "Some
Arrows slay but whom they strike- / But this slew all but
him- / Who so appareled his Escape- / Too trackless for a
Tomb." Despite promises, he received no callers: "At least to
pray is left - is left / Oh Jesus - in the Air - I know not
which thy chamber is- / I'm knocking everywhere."
As Son of Jehovah, he was a pretentious bore. As Son of
Sorrow, our compatriot: "When he tells us about his Father,
we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn
away, but when he confides to us that he is 'acquainted with
grief,' we listen, for that also is an acquaintance of our
own." The "Crucifixal Clef' was a universal key though only
one crucifixion was memorialized: "One Crucifixion is
recorded - only- / How many be / Is not affirmed of
Mathematics / Or History- / One Calvary - exhibited to
Stranger/ As many be / As persons - or Peninsulas."
Gethsemane was "a province in the Being's Center" Dickinson, the Empress of Calvary, an inveterate habitue.
When the Amherst sphinx styled herself a pagan, she
meant she didn't believe in the biblical god. What sort of
deity, if any, she did believe in is hard to pinpoint. Her
tracks crisscross.
According to Richard Sewall, in "her own personal theology, the World and Man and God were all but coordinate."
In one place, she chides Atheists as benighted souls who
"Stake an entire store / Upon a Moment's shallow Rim /
While their commuted Feet / The Torrents of Eternity / Do
all but inundate." Since she equated eternity with heightened consciousness, her Atheist could be anyone with
straitened perceptions or sparse imagination. Elsewhere,
she assimilates god to thought: "The Brain is just the
weight of God / For heft them - Pound for Pound - / And
Page 28

they will differ - if they do- / As Syllable from Sound." She


also said, "The Supernatural is only the Natural disclosed"
- shades of naturalism or pantheism.
She mocked anthropomorphic conceptions of deity. She
sifted Omnipotence from "God the Father - and the Son":
"Omnipotence has not a Tongue- / His lisp is Lightning
and the Sun." Omnipotence was also life itself: "To be alive
- is Power- / Existence in itself / Without a further function/ Omnipotence
Enough." She distrusted
the
Enlightenment claim that the orderly motions of celestial
bodies "substantiate" a Designer: "If Aims impel these
Astral Ones / The ones allowed to know / Know that which
makes them as forgot / As Dawn forgets them now."
Still, she said someone had to "tailor the nut" and "prepare this mighty show." One of her most popular poems, a
junior-high favorite, reads: "I never saw a Moor- / I never
saw the Sea- / Yet know I how the Heather looks / And
what a Billow be. / I never spoke with God / Nor visited in
Heaven- / Yet certain am I of the spot / As if the checks
were given." Since the poem was written in the 1860s, it
can't be dismissed as a spasm of pious juvenilia. Perhaps it
accompanied a now lost consolatory letter. (Dickinson made
copies of poems she sent with letters, only about one-tenth
of which have survived.) She may also be using "God" and
"Heaven" figuratively. The "spot" may be within her. Or
maybe she assumed the persona of a naive believer. Or
maybe ... Because of her occasional pious effusions, coupled
with her friendships with members of sundry denominations, scholars have tried to lasso her into Christian
Spiritualism, conservative Unitarianism, liberal Unitarianism, Episcopalianism, eucharistic Presbyterianism,
and
"moderate" Evangelicalism.
My guess is she died an agnostic. "Faith is Doubt," she
told Susan Dickinson, her sister-in-law and, for years, confidante of choice. She preferred mystery to certitude, spry
to calcified belief: "On subjects of which we know nothing,
we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour,
which keeps believing nimble." The ceaseless vacillation
galvanized her spirit: "Sweet Skepticism ofthe Heart / That
knows and does not know / And tosses like a Fleet of Balm
/ Affronted by the snow."
In another way, Emily Dickinson was a polytheist. She
worshiped Nature, Love, Truth, Beauty, and Words - in
indeterminate order. "Those who lift their hats," she said,
shall see Nature as devout do God." And: "If we love
Flowers, are we not 'born again' every day?" Love was "the
joyful little Deity / We are not scourged to serve." Any
human face she loved "would put out Jesus.'" Truth was
god's "twin identity." To Beauty, she lifted her prayers:
"Have mercy on me / But if I expire today / Let it be in sight
of thee." The "Word made flesh" was poetry that "breathes
distinctly" and "has not the power to die."
Her final letter, written to her Norcross cousins shortly before she slipped into a terminal coma, read simply:
"Called back."
Cryptic, of course.

r-----------------------,
. Explore the American Atheists Web-site:
~

www.atheists.org

L._._._._._._._._._._._.~

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

Sublime Hatred:
Nietzsche"s l\nti-6hristianity
"Almost two thousand years, and no new god!" -Nietzsche
By Jason DeBoer

s of August 25,
2001, Friedrich
Nietzsche
had
been dead for exactly one
hundred and one years.
Perhaps
the greatest
thinker
since ancient
Greece, his intellectual
legacy is still young, and
will surely last for a
thousand more years. As
we
contemplate
the
impact of Nietzschean
thought after a century, I
would like to take a brief
look at his sustained
attacks
against Christianity.
Atheism is central to Nietzsche's thought: it informs
his critique of metaphysics, his revaluation of morals and
values; his ideas on nihilism, and his views on the history
of mankind. Most famous for his refrain that "God is
dead," Nietzsche's Atheism is actually far more complex,
and is easily the most comprehensive critique of religion
ever assembled. His is not an unbiased critique: Nietzsche
burns with hatred toward Christianity, and his Atheistic
writings are extremely vitriolic.
Nietzsche
has
many
reasons
for
despising
Christianity: he feels that it emphasizes the wrong values
for mankind, preferring weakness, a herd mentality, and
false morality to strength, individual genius, and honesty.
As a religion, Nietzsche felt Christianity is inimical to
truth-seeking,
scientific inquiry, and sensuality;
it
replaced these values with blind faith, self-deception, and

Jason DeBoer currently

resides in Wisconsin, where


he is creating a new literary and philosophical publishing house called Trembling Sun Press. He is the
managing editor of Eighteenth-Century
Studies, an
academic journal based at Northwestern
University.
His work has recently appeared in numerous journals,
including The Barcelona Review, Rampike, Libido, and
The Absinthe Literary Review. E-mail: tremblingsun@yahoo.com This article previously appeared online in The Absinthe Literary Review.

Parsippany, New Jersey

morbid piety. In fact, Nietzsche's Atheism is somewhat


atypical, in that he takes the non-existence of God as a
given, spending no time in argument against proofs of
God, etc. The possible reality of a god is summarily ignored
as a ludicrous notion by Nietzsche, who much preferred to
analyze the philosophical and psychological foundations of
religious belief. Since he views all such belief as error,
Nietzschean thought serves foremost as an intellectual
alternative to religion: "We experience what has been
revered as God,- not as 'godlike' but as miserable, as
absurd, as harmful, not merely as an error but as a crime
against life. We deny God as God."
There are several key Christian ideas that Nietzsche
abhors in particular, and it is these concepts that have
worked together to form a powerful psychological and
ideological force lasting for two thousand years. Nietzsche
tries to separate each concept from the whole and criticize
each in turn. The Christian ideas that each person has an
immortal soul (and that all such souls are equal in the
eyes of God) have been particularly alluring, and these
ideas derive their power by appealing both to the
anti-aristocratic sentiment of the lower classes,- as well
as to individual egos and their fear of death. Nietzsche
writes:
That everyone as an 'immortal soul' has equal rank
with everyone else, that in the totality of living beings
the 'salvation' of every single individual may claim eternal significance ... Christianity owes its triumph to this
miserable flattery of personal vanity: it was precisely all
the failures, all the rebellious-minded, all the lessfavored, the whole scum and refuse of humanity who
were thus won over to it. The 'salvation of the soul' - in
plain language is 'the world revolves around me'.
The Christian soul serves a multifold purpose: as the
locus for the transcendence of all earthly behavior, the
vehicle into the beyond of heaven's immortality, and the
grand equalizer by which the lowest criminal has the
same worth in God's eyes as the greatest king or hero. The
Christian soul is then maintained or purified by following
the codes of Christian morality, which emphasizes negative enforcement ofthe moral code through fear, sin, guilt,
etc., or positive enforcement by endorsing behaviors such
pity, hope, love, etc. While it is easy for most people to see
the negative effects of sin and guilt, it can be much more
difficult to see such flaws in concepts like hope and love, or

Winter 2001-2002

Page 29

to realize they have developed from fundamentally


Christian concepts.
Thus, Nietzsche concentrates his attack on these
moral concepts, which appear falsely to most contemporary Westerners as universal and eternal. On the dangerous aspects of pity, Nietzsche writes: "Christianity is called
the religion of pity. Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality: it has a depressing
effect. We are deprived of strength when we feel pity."
Elsewhere, he continues: "What is more harmful than any
vice? Active pity for all the failures and all the weak:
Christianity."
Next, Nietzsche lambastes Christian hope as a malady:
"Those who suffer must be sustained by a hope that can
never be contradicted by any reality or be disposed by any
fulfillment - a hope for the beyond. (Precisely because of
its ability to keep the unfortunate in continual suspense,
the Greeks considered hope the evil of evils, the truly
insidious evil: it remained behind in the barrel of evils.)"
Likewise, in On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche writes:
"Hope is the worst of all evils, for it prolongs the torments
of Man."
Finally, one of the most influential Western concepts,
love, is purported by Nietzsche to be used by Christian
thought as a tool to influence its subjects: "Love is the state
in which man sees things most decidedly as they are not.
The power of illusion is at its peak here, as is the power to
sweeten and transfigure. In love man endures more, man
bears everything. A religion had to be invented in which
one could love: what is worst in life is thus overcome - it is
not even seen any more."
At bottom, Nietzsche also believed Christianity to be
fundamentally anti scientific, since much of its entire theology is based on obscuring or denying physical truth. At
the heart of Christianity is an invisible, purely metaphysical god, a prime mover, an omnipresent and omniscient
deity with the power to exist or interfere in every earthly
process: this is the powerful, if absurd, first premise with
which Christianity circumvents all threatening questions
of a scientific nature. On this point, he writes: "'In
Christianity neither morality nor religion has even a single point of contact with reality. Nothing but imaginary
causes ('God,' 'soul,' 'ego,' 'spirit,' 'free will' or that matter,
'unfree will'), nothing but imaginary effects (,sin,' 'redemption,' 'grace,' 'punishment,' 'forgiveness of sins')."
As part of his polemic, Nietzsche repeatedly uses the
same derogatory terms to describe Christianity. First, he
sees it as a religion formed by the refuse or flotsam and jetsam of humanity, a religion of castoffs and disenfranchised
rabble. As one example, he says: "The Christian movement
is a degeneracy movement composed of reject and refuse
elements of every kind: it is not the expression of the
decline of a race; it is from the first an agglomeration of
forms of morbidity crowding together and seeking one
another out. It is therefore not national not racially conditioned; it appeals to the disinherited everywhere; it is
founded on a rancor against everything well-constituted
and dominant. It also stands in opposition to every spiritual movement, to all philosophy: it takes the side of idiots
and utters a curse on the spirit." Second, be sees
Christianity as a religion steeped in sickness, weakness,
and illness: for him, Christian values are the most
Page 30

unhealthy of any religion or philosophy. Christianity, in


fact, often points to the body and its senses as things to be
reviled; the body becomes merely a site for temptations,
and the senses mere mechanisms for triggering the temptation process. If the soul is the vehicle into heaven, then
the Christian body is the vehicle into sin. For Nietzsche,
this anti-sensuality in Christian thought can only lead to
self-loathing and unhappiness:
"Christianity...
is the
hatred of the spirit, of pride, courage, freedom, liberty of
the spirit; Christian is the hatred of the senses, of joy in
the senses, of joy itself" In a similar vein, he writes in
Beyond Good and Evil: "The Christian faith from the
beginning, is sacrifice: the sacrifice of all freedom, all
pride, all self-confidence of spirit; it is at the same time
subjection, a self-derision, and self-mutilation." Third,
Nietzsche sees in Christianity the triumph ofthe unthinking lowest classes, of the herd: he speaks of "the domestic
animal the herd animal, the sick human animal - the
Christian."
It is interesting that Nietzsche, although one of the
fiercest Atheists in history, was in fact not entirely
anti-religious, merely anti-Christian.
He respected and
admired many of the aspects of other religions, including
paganism and even Buddhism. One of the reasons
Nietzsche believed pagan gods to be superior mythically to
Christian monotheism was that the Greek and Roman
gods were always anthropomorphic: they reflected honestly
all of man's real strengths and foibles. In comparison, the
Christian concept of God was entirely metaphysical, which
tainted it with a fundamental dishonesty in the face ofthe
physical world (and even life itself). For Nietzsche, this
was abominable:
The Christian conception of God... is one of the
most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained
on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in
the descending development of divine types. God
degenerated into the contradiction of life, instead of
being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the
declaration of war against life, against nature, against
the will to live! God - the formula for every slander
against "this world," for every lie about the "beyond"'!
God - the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced
holy! ...this pitiful god of
Christian monotono-theism! This hybrid product of
decay, this mixture of zero, concept, and contradiction,
in which all the instincts of decadence, all cowardices
and wearinesses of the soul, find their sanction!
One of the other telling reasons why Nietzsche
despised Christianity was due to its malicious effect on
classical culture, especially that of ancient Rome.
Nietzsche believed that the Roman Empire might still be
standing today, had its progress not been derailed or
undermined by early Christians, bringing an inevitable
Dark Age upon Europe. For Nietzsche, the classical or
pagan ideals were infinitely
superior
to those of
Christianity,
and he viewed it as an unprecedented
tragedy that many of the ancient world's scientific and cultural achievements were subsequently ruined by the emergence of Christian ideology. The Christians were directly
opposed to ancient ideals: they emphasized morality over

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

sensuality, guilt over joy, pity over heroism, the lure of


immortality over the embrace of life, etc. Thus, the entire
Christian agenda served to destroy or soil many of the
important strengths of early civilization that had enabled
mankind to arise from primitive prehistory. Nietzsche
writes: "Christianity is a rebellion of everything that crawls
on the ground against that which has height ... " All of the
higher ideals that inhabited the noble, classical man of
Greece or Rome, were aggressively denied or despised by
the moral Christian. It is a theme that Nietzsche continually repeats, that Christianity's eventual triumph over the
classical religions was not a gentle victory of "moral truth"
over "false paganism," but rather the sad result of a battle
of radically different ideologies: "Christianity should not be
beautified or embellished: it has waged deadly war against
this higher type of man ... Christianity has sided with all
that is weak and base" with all failures; it has made an
ideal of whatever contradicts the instinct of the strong life
to preserve itself..." He firmly believed that "Christianity
has cheated us out of the harvest of ancient cultures,"
instead replacing healthy, ancient values with the moralistic tripe of the Old and New Testaments. Nietzsche particularly despises the latter book: I have looked in vain
through the New Testament to descry even a single sympathetic feature: there is nothing in it that is free, gracious,
candid, honest .... There are only bad instincts in the New
Testament, and not even the courage to have these bad
instincts. Everything in it is cowardice, everything is shutting-one's-eyes and self- deception."

AS A CAR,PENTER,)

In the closing paragraphs of his irreligious masterpiece, The Anti-Christ,


Nietzsche's rhetoric reaches an
almost feverish pitch. His hatred of religious sublimity
becomes almost sublime in itself, his rage reaches an
unprecedented, crystalline purity: "1condemn Christianity.
I raise against the Christian church the most terrible of all
accusations that any accuser ever uttered .... The Christian
church has left nothing untouched by its corruption; it has
turned every value into an un-value, every truth into a lie,
every integrity into a vileness of the soul.. .. This eternal
indictment of Christianity I will write on all walls, wherever there are walls - I have letters to make even the blind
see. I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great
innermost corruption, the one great instinct of revenge, for
which no means is poisonous, stealthy, subterranean, small
enough - I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind." It
is fierce words like these, born of fire and violence, which
will continue to burn for many ages in the minds of
Christians and Atheists alike.

Works Cited
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. and trans. Walter
Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1968),
Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans.
W. Kaufmann (New York: The Viking Press, 1954),
The Great Thoughts, ed. George Seldes (New York: Ballantine
Books, 1985).

DID JESUS EVER GET !lRE.D OF

If'ACTS

of

GoD'"?

AGAIN WITH T\-\E

TORNADOS, DA D.

CA.N', yoU SEE


I'M I\ZYIt\lGIO
'BUILD SDMfll-\lNG-

HERE?

ZOOO PATRICK ()LAINE.


Parsippany, New Jersey

Winter 2001-2002

Page 31

WISE AFTER
THE EVENT
By Margaret Bhatty

henever political upheaval or natural disasters


strike we have scores of soothsayers creeping out
of the woodwork claiming they'd predicted it all
along but we weren't paying attention. According to a certain R. K. Singh, clairvoyant-cum-astrologer who specializes in reading auras, the Gujarat earthquake was predicted in a panchaang (astrological almanac) for 2000-200l.
The period between January 10th and February 8th was
inauspicious. Planetary positions indicated untimely rain,
hailstorms, famine, railway accidents, explosions, earthquakes and fires. A Saturday is normally regarded as an
inauspicious day, but when the moon is in its waning phases it is particularly awful. Singh predicted that the period
between April 5th 2000 and March 21, 2001 would be
marked by natural calamities and great fires with a huge
loss of life and property. This is because, says another seer,
"For the first time in 2,400 years Jupiter and Saturn have
been spurred into direct motion, and that, too, in the same
House, Taurus. "We should prepare ourselves for a crash,
an oil spill, a hurricane, a huge fire, heavy snowfall, another earthquake, or some other calamity in any part of the
world."
The damage in Gujarat could have been worse but for
the "mitigating impact of the great benefactor, Jupiter,"
says one seer. Another, a woman, puts it differently, "Lord
Jupiter is placed in the sixth house, the house of diseases in
India's natal chart. Epidemics and diseases are feared due
to natural calamities like famines, earthquakes, droughts
and floods." Not much hope wherever we turn.
As time goes on we expect more and more wise people
will come out with the truth about the Gujarat catastrophe.
Most humans tend to look at such events as acts ofretribution by gods angered over our sinfulness. Rumors say that

Margaret Bhatty comes from a Christian

missionary family. She is a free-lance journalist and author of books in English. for
Indian children. She lives in Nagpur, India.
For many years a columnist for American
Atheist, she is the author of the AAP book An
Atheist Reports From India, which is available from American Atheists ($9.00, ISBN O~
910309-42-6, Stock #5026)
Page 32

the Gujarat chief minister's persecution of minorities like


Muslims and Christians has earned him punishment. The
sad part is that he is safe and sound; it's innocent people
who have been punished. A controversial Christian minister in the Karnataka government, T. John, was thrown out
of the cabinet for declaring that the Almighty had sent the
Orissa earthquake for the killing of the Australian missionary burnt to death in a jeep with his two small sons.
And now the Gujarat earthquake for the state's persecution of the Christians in particular. The Hindu fundamentalists are worried about the possible fall-out of such
rumors, particularly in tribal areas. they're the sort of
thing that quickly find believers in a credulous population.
Astrology is serious craft here. We are to have degree
courses introduced into our universities. A child's natal
chart is mapped from the moment of birth. Some parents,
having been told the most auspicious moment by an
astrologer, will then induce the birth, or opt for a cesarean
if that is indicated. Among the thousands who fell victim
to the recent earthquake in Gujarat, how many had horoscopes accurately
predicting
their dreadful
death?
Rescuers extricated the bodies of young brides, dressed
and in the process of being married when the building
caved in on them. If Hindu astrology is indeed a science,
how was it that no astrologer found anything queer about
the fateful moments between 8.30 and 9 am on January
26th 2001? What about palmistry? Would all the hands of
the thousands who died show a life line cut off by sudden
death?
Countless temples collapsed. We assume they were
built correctly and seemingly blessed by their presiding
deity. What happened?
Among the vultures now descending on the killing
fields of Gujarat are builders and contractors, developers
and architects. The rebuilding of devastated cities offers
great scope for the kind of people who put up high-rise
buildings with more sand than cement in their construction. Among the experts now promising to rehabilitate
those who still have the money and means to rebuild their
homes will be Vaastu pundits - people who are conversant
with ancient Hindu principles of construction to ensure
householders have health, wealth and happiness.
Vaastu Shastra follows the ancient 'science' of building
homes and other structures with special regard to the five
essential elements of space, air, fire, water and earth.

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

Humans of earliest times made their homes in caves and


inaccessible places for protection against enemies and ferocious beasts. They decorated the walls of their dwellings
with magical totems. To enhance cosmic magic they erected cairns and columns to the sun, moon, and stars. Certain
spaces were regarded as sacred and could be entered only
by the chief or a shaman. We still have those sacred spaces
in churches, temples, mosques, etc. where more magic is
concentrated than in other parts of the building. Spires,
domes, pagodas and gopurams concentrate cosmic energy.
Vaastu pundits claim the Egyptians were the first to discover how to capture this energy through the pyramid.
Vaastu Shastra is enjoying a great boom at this time,
along with every other unverifiable but otherwise ancient
'science.' To suggest it might be a lot of baloney is on a par
with blasphemy. All the absurdities we now see being given
credence are part of current Hindu revivalism.
Vaastu Shastra has its parallels in other ancient
beliefs like the Chinese 'science' of Feng Shui, where rearranging the graves of one's ancestors could change one's
luck. Similarly, Vaastu Shastra is ideal for solving the problem of urban chaos, polluted air, and contaminated water.
Space, air, fire, water, and earth have a constant and invisible relation with us. So their proper placement in planning
homes is of great importance.
Those who scoff, or build their dwellings without proper regard to Vaastu Shastra principles, will be "afflicted
with unnecessary travels, a bad name, loss of reputation,
sorrows, and disappointments." This science, one pundit
tells us, "was brought into light by sages for the betterment
and over-all welfare of the universe."
Because of the significance of the Sun, the direction in
which it rises is of paramount importance in the layout of
a residence. Blocking off the sun could mean the householder will have no male issue. While East is the source of
sons, South-east is the source of health. South assures one
of wealth, crops and happiness; South-west is the source of
character, behavior, and influences longevity and death.
West is the source of name, fame and prosperity; Northwest is the source of change
in the course of business,
friendship and enmity. North should never be blocked by
natural topography because it is the source of female offspring! North-East is the source of health, wealth, etc., as
well as sons.
Every corner is further divided into two sides each.
Balconies, windows, doors and verandahs should be more
towards East and North rather than West or South. "It is
also prescribed to have ground levels lower and to avoid
any kind of obstacles like big boulders, mounds, tall buildings, high compound wall, etc., on the Eastern and
Northern sides." [Hidden Treasure of Vaastu Shilpa
Shastra and India Traditions by Derebail Muralidhar
Rao.]
Ironically, India by its very location, violates every
principle of Vaastu Shastra. The North and North-east is
blocked by the Himalaya mountains. And the three expanses of ocean we have are all on the wrong sides. Maybe that's
why we're always in such a mess, politically and socially,
though the population keeps increasing, so somewhere or
other people are getting directions right even though ignorant of Vaastu Shastra.
Parsippany, New Jersey

Rajesh Arya, a Delhi architect, started life as a pundit


advising film stars, politicians, industrialists and people
with more money than brains, on how to ensure success
through the proper placement of doors, windows, pillars,
etc. But he found that Vaastu can't be seriously followed
nowadays. He has therefore gone on to "cosmic architecture." In an interview to a newspaper he explained this
unusual 'science.'
"Vaastu Shastra is a Vedic science that deals with how
houses should be built and how a thing should be placed
within them to harmonize the body and the built-up surroundings. It began with the principle of temple-building,
where everything was fixed and everything was in place.
But today we wouldn't be able to build that way because
we have to deal with reality, with high-rise buildings, with
cars and computers."
The blockage of cosmic energy by the Himalayas can
be corrected to some degree by opening more and more
roads through them, says Arya. His craft isn't concerned
with ozone depletion and pollution. He is more concerned
with the manner in which ignorant builders have disturbed the earth's magnetic field. "That's what is causing
all the problems of Bombay."
Cosmic architecture isn't all up in the air. One must
know and believe in magnetic and cosmic energy, the symbolism of the five elements, numerology, astrology, auras
and colors and shapes. All help energy to flow in a structure.
In his book A Glimpse of Practical Vaastu, B. N. Reddy
describes in detail the shape of the building plot, location,
layout of the rooms, placement of furniture, directions of
windows and doors, and the location of the water source. A
well or pond to the North or North-east gets the benefit of
the sun's first rays and all disease germs are killed by the
ultraviolet radiation. An ideal plot should be square with
four roads on four sides, but a rectangular plot with its
length twice the width ensures prosperity and happiness.
Triangular plots give rise to conflict and they are the
source of civil and criminal suits. A circular plot is a constant source of problems. Extensions should be made only
to the north or north-east. Extensions to the south-west
brings "insurmountable problems"; and to the south-east,
fire, accident, theft and law suits; to the North-West heavy
expenditure and mental unrest.
Vaastu pundits are in such demand nowadays that
schools of architecture are giving courses in this absurd
'science'. We also have degree courses in medical astrology
in the diagnosis of disease, the most auspicious timings for
operations, etc. Vaastu pundits also recommend that the
measurement of the central hall of a house should be calculated on a basis of the birth star of the householder.
"If colonies, villages, and cities are built on Vaastu
principles, ancient texts assure us they will all be prosperous," says one pundit. The scientific validity of Vaastu is
proved by three remarkable examples:
Lord Venkateshwara is the richest god in the world
because his temple at Tirupati has its main entrance on
the east and a water-tank to the north-east. The Saibaba
ofPuttaparti (the one with the afro-hairdo currently under
attack on the Internet as an active pedophile and likely to
be the target of an international law suit soon for child

Winter 2001-2002

Page 33

abuse) is today regarded as a 'living god' with followers


equal in number to the pope, because water flows by his
- ashram in the north-eastern
direction and hillocks are
located to the south-west. Somnath, the famous temple in
Gujarat, was built on Vaastu principles. But this isn't such
a good example really, since it was plundered and sacked
by Mahmud of Ghazni in 997 CEo
Our politicians are among the most credulous of people. When appointed to office and allotted bungalows in the
Capital, they call in astrologers and tantrics to advise them
on the most auspicious times to enter, and to exorcise any
evil lurking in the premises. Some have changes made to a
basic layout which is against Vaastu principles.
In May 1995, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh,
was advised that nine large bungalows to the north and
north-east of the Secretariat in the capital Hyderabad were
seriously affecting the flow of cosmic energy and that was
bad for his government. He had them all razed, but didn't
survive long enough to pay the whopping bill the city corporation sent him. His own son-in-law bundled him out of
office and he died shortly after.
Dr. M. Channa Reddy, an earlier Chief Minister of
Andhra Pradesh in 1978, ascribed his meteoric rise in politics to remodeling his house correctly. In an introduction to
a book on Vaastu Shastra, Channa Reddy describes how
when he was in Delhi as Union Minister in the central government, he was told that he should remove the guardroom
attached to his Hyderabad house to the North-east. As soon
as he did so, a marriage alliance for his daughter materialized even before the demolition was completed.
In 1973 he bought an adjacent house and remodeled it
according to Vaastu. The fall-out was immediate: he was
appointed Governor of Uttar Pradesh state, became
Congress President in 1977, and Chief Minister of Andhra
Pradesh in 1978. He seriously believed that "the
Government at the center and those in the states should
endeavor to make Vaastu Shastra a part of their syllabuses in colleges of engineering and architecture. It will go a
long way in reviving the ancient science, and also make a

happy admixture to our ancient heritage and modern science."


Vaastu specialists
suggest that the Bureau
of
Industrial and Financial Construction (BIFR) should use
this science and save millions. The British were ignorant
about building and beefeaters too. They knew nothing
about how 'scientific' principles in government buildings
can bring success and wealth to a nation.
The growing popularity of Vaastu Shastra is yet another symptom of the general malaise which affects us today
where the god Ganesh "sips" milk from shallow spoons,
godmen and tantrics over-awe nation's leaders with conjuring tricks to prove they are 'super-beings', and every new
'miracle' reported by the media confirms obsolete and
absurd 'scientific' principles from ancient Indian culture.
Fatalism is the bane of Indian society today. We have yet to
learn to take responsibility and find rational solutions to
our problems. Shifting the furniture, knocking out pillars,
relocating doors and windows isn't going to help. The current regression to superstition in the name of culture is a
disturbing thing to see. Regrettably, it is closely tied in
with Hindu revivalism.

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The Jesus Puzzle

WHY lAM NOT


A MUSLIM

Did Christianity Begin With A


Mythical Christ?
by Earl Doherty

By Ibn Warraq

Challenging the existence


of an historical Jesus

A courageous crticicism of the


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Page 34

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Winter 2001-2002

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American Atheist

REVIEWS

VARDIS FISHER
An American and Atheist Novelist
on the History of Religious Ideas
PART VI
This series of articles on Vardis Fisher's TESTAMENT OF MAN is adapted from an unpublished work written in the late
1980s, titled A Journey Through History in Fiction: A Reader's Guide to History and Historical Novels. Earl Doherty
concludes his discussion of Fisher's eleven-volume work with this review of the final two novels of the TESTAMENT, which
depict the development of Christianity into the Middle Ages.

By Earl Doherty
In previous installments of this series on Vardis
Fisher's eleven-volume work of historical fiction, the TESTA
MENT OF MAN, Earl Doherty examined Fisher's tracing of the
development of religious ideas from prehistory to the beginnings of Christianity. The final two novels of the TESTAMENT
survey the full flowering within Christian civilization of
those ancient moral and mythical roots, and how they have
ultimately shaped and confined the mind and spirit of the
modern western world.
PEACELIKEA RIVER
Alan Swallow, Denver, 1957 (316 pages)
The human mind has gone down many strange byways
in its time, but few so strange as that traveled by the early
Christian ascetics who went out into the deserts to "wrestle with Satan." In this tenth novel of his TESTAMENT OF MAN,
Vardis Fisher brings us onto the dry, sun-seared sands of
Egypt, where saints like the renowned Hilarion wall themselves into doorless, windowless stone cells under the blistering heat, entombed sometimes for years in their own
sweat and waste; their only contact with the outside world
is the passage of bread and water through a narrow opening. Or like the blessed Agios, buried to the neck in the

Earl Doherty is a member of the Humanist Association of


Canada, with a degree in History and Classical
Languages. As a long-time researcher into the subject of
Christian origins, he supports the position that no historical Jesus existed. His own contributions to that theory
have been embodied in a Web-site that has gained worldwide attention and in a recent book called The Jesus
Puzzle: Did Christianity

Begin with a Mythical Christ?

published by Canadian Humanist Publications. For information,


visit
the
Jesus
Puzzle
Web-site:
<http://www.magi.coml~oblio/jesus.html>

The Jesus Puzzle can be purchased from


American Atheist Press for $14.50, plus shipping
and handling. AAP stock # 5599
Parsippany, New Jersey

sands for days on end, naked, without food or water or covering for his blistering scalp. Others stand for days on one
leg with heavy stones hanging from their necks; or search
out the nests of wasps and mosquitoes to subject themselves to their stings. With all manner of self-deprivation
and castigation of the flesh do these primitive monks, in
bleak solitude or in small ill-organized communities, mostly men but a few women, seek to atone for their sins and
compete to achieve the greatest feats of sanctity.
Into one such desert community comes Hareb, a gaunt,
dour, tormented man "struggling mightily against his evil
passions." He is accompanied by his meek and long-suffering wife, by Mark, an affluent merchant and occasional
ascetic, and by Helene, a woman strong-minded and with a
skeptical bent, fleeing the latest round of persecution on the
eve of the emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity.
Hareb soon declares that the childish ordeals adopted
by other monks are not for him: he will achieve holiness
and renown by challenging Satan on the very ground of his
evil power. And so he goes into the nearby city to purchase
a night with the most beautiful, the most seductive of harlots, ThaIS, whom no man, it is said, has yet been able to
spurn or resist ....
The principal impulse to early Christian asceticism
was to suppress the allurements of the world, and especially of the flesh. The attraction and love between a man and
a woman, the taste of fine foods and wine, even beauty in
nature from the song of the bird to the scent of the rose,
were looked upon as part of the domain and powers of
Satan, to be used to seduce the soul. Hareb's personal torments about the evils of the body and the diabolical nature
of women have been fueled by the obsession among many
Christian sects that sex is the greatest of sins and that
woman is the cause of this evil. Hareb quotes almost all the
prominent Church Fathers in his justification for his views.
What did Tertullian say? Woman, you are the gate to hell.
Clement had said: For Eve's deceit, the very Son of God had
to perish. Cyprian: Woman is the instrument which the Evil
One employs to possess our souls. Such views resulted in a

Winter 2001-2002

Page 35

condemnation of all sexual activity, even in marriage, an


exaltation of celibacy and self-denial. Origen had taken the
ultimate step by castrating himself. Ambrose was to
declare, Let the race die rather than propagate it with the
sin of sexual intercourse. And into the mouth of a desert
monk, Fisher puts the later Augustine's infamous comment about birth: "Inter [seces et urinas nascimur."
Helene, speaking for all women, expresses no end of
amazement and indignation at men's presumption. They
believe that Adam was created pure, in the image of God,
only to be seduced and corrupted by Eve, dragged downto
her inferior level. "With war, torture, slavery and whorehouses you men have corrupted the world, and now you try
to put off on women the shame and the wickedness." Men,
she says, made Jesus a celibate and required that he be
born of a virgin; but she believes that "only women understand Jesus, and of women, only mothers."
Fisher is taking as his main focus in this novel one of
the major themes of the TESTAMENT: what man has done to
woman over the course of history and the effects this has
had on society's well-being. Out of fear of the God/father
figure, men have felt an impulse to castration, which is
what asceticism is all about. They have been led to denigrate the sexual impulse and consequently women as its
source. This has deprived society of the positive effects of
women's sexuality and with it of many of their other
virtues. The one which Fisher continually focuses upon is
women's instinctual and practical nature, which has so far
been overridden by men's compulsion to construct abstract
principles. The latter are more often than not life-denying
because they have been derived from life-denying fears and
motivations. The pathological association of sex with sin is
merely the prime example.
In the final chapter Helene emerges from the desert
with Mark, and together they travel to Niceea where the
newly converted emperor Constantine has convened a
Council to settle the doctrinal differences between the
mainstream Christian sects. Gaining seats in the public
gallery of the Council chamber, they hear the assembled
bishops arguing over the dates of the Birth and
Resurrection, questions of clerical celibacy and the power
of the bishops, and above all the doctrinal matter of the
relationship between the Father and the Son within the
Trinity, the great dispute between the Catholics and the
Arians.
A profuse number of sects, often with wildly different
beliefs and practices, dotted the Christian landscape of the
first three centuries, and Fisher's characters in Peace Like,
A River are often bewildered by the wide variety of beliefs
they are confronted with. In all this tangled evolution, the
question arises as to what had become of the original
Jesus. Even today, biblical scholars still lament that he
was lost in the welter of subsequent theology and sectarian infighting, in the adoration of the kingly, risen Christ
and savior figure, an entity placed on an equal footing with
God. Thus, whatever benefit to humanity that might have
been derived from the human, earth-trodding
sage of
Galilee, whether he was man or myth, flesh or allegory,
was soon lost to the institutionalized,
remote, heavenly
Son that the medieval Christ became.

Page 36

Amid the Trinitarian wrangling ofthe Nicsean Council,


Helene, in the final pages of Fisher's novel, stands to interject the question: "But I thought the Son was Jesus, and
Jesus was a Jew in Israel, wasn't he?" The exchange continues:
"A Jew!" the deacon cried and choked. "Do you call the
Word a Jew? The Word that was in God and was with God
and was God?"
"But Jesus was a Jew, wasn't he?"
"Who is this wicked woman? Does she belong with
Arius?"
"No, damn it, I don't belong with Arius! I asked if Jesus
was a Jew. Was he a man?"
The deacon appealed to his audience. "A man, she says!
The Word, the unbegotten Word, a man! A Jew!"
"But what about Jesus?"
"Come," said Mark, and took her arm to lead her away.
"But what about Jesus," she said. "Where does he come
into all this?"
"I don't know," Mark said ....

MY HOLY SATAN: A Novel of Christian Twilight


Alan Swallow, Denver, 1958 (326 pages)
With this eleventh and final historical novel, the TESreaches a shattering emotional climax, The
series has been about the history of ideas, especially religious ones; and it has followed the -Iudeeo-Christian thread
because it was central to the history of the western world.
After the conversion of Constantine, the ideas of a thousand years and more were Christian ideas, but in choosing
his moment to set down within this long era offaith, Fisher
has chosen the early 13th century in southern France. For
his focus will not be upon the ideas and traditions of the
Church per se, but upon how this establishment which permeated every pore of medieval society upheld its ideas and
ideals against dissenting ones. This is the age of heresy and
inquisition.
The world of the novel is mostly the world of serfs.
These tillers of the land are little better than slaves, and
the greater part of their toil is for the benefit of their local
lord. What little they own and produce is mostly eaten up
by taxes and tithes. Their lives are circumscribed by a host
of proscriptions designed to protect the wealth and privileges of the nobility. They live in filthy hovels, in a mire of
superstition, in appalling ignorance.
But serf and noble alike are discouraged from the pursuit oflearning, and most of what can be learned is decreed
heretical. From the bishops to the village priests, a policy
of imposed ignorance serves to keep society from the means
or the temptation to doubt the Church's precepts, for
"doubting is itself heretical." Did not the Old Testament
say, "In much wisdom is much grief," and St. Paul, "If any
man is ignorant let him be ignorant?" This has been a
major theme through the entire TESTAMENT: that the development of humanity's ideas, its search for knowledge and
truth, has always taken place amid determined opposition,
and that the greatest tyranny people have tried to exercise
over one another is tyranny over the mind.
Richard is a young serf who manages to buy his freedom so that he can follow the dangerous pursuit of learning, a lust for which fills his soul. He is befriended by Hillel,
TAMENT OF MAN

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

a Jewish doctor who enjoys a shaky protection from the


Church's persecution because of his value to the local
baron's health. With his writings on medicine, Hillel represents the budding new branch of science and logic, one
struggling for life in an atmosphere of suspicion and condemnation by the clerical authorities. The learned philosopher-monk Abelard, famed for his love affair with Heloise,
had a few generations earlier been stripped of his position
for claiming that all knowledge was good, and that the key
to wisdom was diligent and unceasing questioning. Abelard
is Hillel's guiding light. Truth, and the freedom to undertake its search, has always fought for its life, Hillel tells
Richard. The list of those who have died in the quest is
long: Socrates, Seneca, Jesus, how many thousands? Death
has too often been the price of daring to think.
But Richard runs afoul of one of the village priests,
Father Luce, who seduces and then murders because of her
resulting pregnancy the young girl whom Richard has
hopes of marrying. (Fisher has based this on records of an
actual case.) Father Luce - in contrast to the other local
priest, the kindly, pious and dedicated Father Raoul - represents the dark side of the medieval clergy, that well-documented picture of corruption, greed, carnality and fanaticism which produced so much condemnation and disillusionment in society at large and led to numerous anti-clerical heresies and eventually the Reformation. When
Richard, seduced by the baron's wife, is suspected of a
crime, Father Luce pounces. For his perceived heretical
beliefs, for his association with a member of the accursed
race rather than any criminal accusation, Richard is drawn
into the clutches of the Inquisition.
When he enters the dungeon, the reader descends with
him. Not even the renowned historian and historical novelist on the Inquisition, Zoe Oldenbourg, * has created a
scene so searing, that so reduces the reader to a harrowed,
helpless witness of naked fear and despair. Richard struggles to maintain his sanity amid the suffocating dark and
silence and filth, against the descending blackness of the
mind. His horrible anticipations alternate with glimmerings of hope and determination, as he draws strength from
the fellowship he feels with the men of the past "who had
loved the dignity of man and the freedom of his mind more
than they had loved life."
With the interrogation
by the inquisitors
comes
Richard's terrified struggle to remain faithful to his pledge
to truth. And because of his refusal to abjure and allow his
soul to be saved, he is led into the torture chamber ....
Fisher forces us to face a particularly agonizing question. In one trembling moment in his cell, Richard comes to
a terrible awareness about human beings. He asks why
some men so enjoy the sufferings of their fellows. Such
men, he realizes, have created a God who in the Old
Testament commanded the utter destruction of his people's
enemies; who granted for the perfect felicity of the saved in
Heaven a window through which they could look down
upon the tortures of the damned; who, through scripture
and leaders like Augustine, compelled the believer to force
the unbeliever into the fold, even if it required torture and
death. For all of Richard's fears for himself, Fisher makes
us realize that the greatest despair one can feel is not over
one's personal fate; it is a despair over the worth of humanParsippany, New Jersey

ity as a whole. That is the challenge which history, even in


our own day, is constantly presenting: how to find hope in
a record so abysmal. In the ambiguous but uplifting ending
to My Holy Satan and to his TESTAMENT OF MAN, Vardis
Fisher tries to instill in us that looked-for hope, a hope that
the "light is breaking," that voices of reason and compassion can be raised and welcomed.
The power of this novel would be difficult to exaggerate. Fisher has plainly poured the blood of his convictions
into it, and between the lines one can sense that the writing of the final scenes must have been a dreadful drain
upon him. Like most writers, Fisher was sensitive to the
censorship of ideas and the suppression of people's minds,
and no institution in human history has been more guilty
of such practices than the medieval Christian Church.
What is most chilling about this suppression is that it was
conducted with the best of intentions; apologists for the
Inquisition are always at pains to point this out. The separation of the body and soul had become so complete in
religious philosophy, a kind of Platonism gone mad, that
any horror - torture, entombment for life, death by fire could be visited upon the material temporal self in order
that the spiritual eternal self might be saved from a
damnation conceived of as infinitely worse. Correct belief
was vastly more important than moral behavior. Richard
comes to realize that the implacable, closed-minded
inquisitor is not really an evil man. He is simply convinced
that his task is to save souls, and to protect other souls
from heretical infection. He employs torture not only to
gain confessions and to extract information which will lead
him to other heretics, he uses it to force the confessed
heretic to abjure his heresy and thereby be absolved of his
sins before being executed.
The true horror of all this, as Fisher conveys it, is that
the suppressors are themselves victims of the same suppression. And when their power reaches into every crevice
of society's mind, into its political and social structures,
into its religious beliefs and superstitions, its fears of everpresent death, demons and the afterlife, the system
becomes extremely powerful, self-perpetuating and longlasting. Such a system came together, as at no other time
in history, with the advent of a strong and dogmatic institution like the Christian Church during a period when it
offered the only stable foundation amid the decay and lawlessness which followed the collapse of the western Roman
empire.
History is popularly conceived of as a more or less
steady progression of knowledge, enlightenment and technology. But just as the Middle Ages lost so much of the
ancients' learning in science, medicine, geography, their
theories about nature and the universe, so too it regressed
appallingly in the freedom of the mind and the spirit of
inquiry. Historians of the Middle Ages tend to follow two
tendencies. There are those who like to portray medieval
society, despite its more unpleasant aspects, as a vital, productive system, generating a beneficial conformity of belief
and morality, networks of trade and social interaction, the
erection of great cathedrals. Others see it in decidedly
*See Zoe Oldenbourg's novels Cities of the Flesh and Destiny of
Fire, and her history of the Albigensian Crusade, Massacre at
Monstsegur.

Winter 2001-2002

Page 37

darker colors. For them it was an age when few but the
clergy (and by no means all of these) could read or write,
sanitation and personal cleanliness was at its nadir, protection from the whims and exploitation of the powerful, or
the tyranny of official dogma and those who wielded it, was
non-existent. Superstition reigned; poverty was crushing;
warfare, persecution and disease could decimate populations. Cruelty surpassed almost anything in ancient times.
In the average mind "Satan was Prince of the world," and
life could be summed up as "War, Famine and Plague."
Fisher, drawing on some ofthe most progressive scholars of his day, comes down firmly on the latter side, and
generally speaking the majority of historical novelists after
him have followed suit. But have any of them gotten so
thoroughly inside the superstitious mind: like that of the
woman who eats her fingernail parings and hair cuttings
because it was believed that witches could do horrible
things if they got hold of them? Or conveyed so gruesomely the filth of home and body, whether of the serf in his
hovel or the baron in his castle? This reluctance to wash
(and many of the great saints were renowned for it) was
influenced by the clerical condemnation of bathing as a
sensual indulgence, and by the philosophy of men like St.
Jerome who claimed that "if a Christian had washed in the
blood of the Lamb (i.e., Christ) he need not wash again." As
for the much-vaunted Courtly Love, has anyone so ruefully punctured its fraudulent inanities? People believed in
the efficacy of a multitude of holy relics, in a great population of malevolent demons, led by a Devil who could visit
young women and lie with them (sometimes producing in
his impish cunning and powers of impersonation a baby
who resembled the parish priest). They lived in constant
fear of the chance word or action which could label one a
heretic or lead him on the many paths to Hell. In this life
or the next, most men and women literally felt themselves
doomed. Fisher paints a numbing picture of a society
whose "devotion to God plunged it into continuous sorrow
and frantic prayers."
The struggle to throw off this cloak of darkness began
in the late eleventh century, and it was met in most quarters by a fierce resistance. All science, material advancement, cures for disease - which was regarded as just punishment by God for sin - tended to be condemned as works
of Satan. No questioning of scripture or ecclesiastical
authority could be tolerated. The Inquisition, begun in the
early thirteenth century, institutionalized this resistance.
(On this and other subjects, Fisher's appended Notes quoting his scholarly sources make for chilling reading.)
The Church's unyielding stance produced not only an
anti-clerical and anti-Roman reaction; there arose across
Europe a mix of humanist outlook and a new type of religious philosophy, divorced from Roman authority. Scholars
began to praise the humility and liberty of the intellect, the
pursuit of knowledge under God. Hillel and Richard are
convinced that "God reveals himself to those who inquire,
and those who are afraid to inquire he leaves to their folly."
In his cell, Richard dreams of a smiling Jesus who says,
"Suffer all truth-seekers to come unto me." And in keeping
with Fisher's tendency to cast Christian elements in mythically symbolic terms, Richard declares that Jesus represents all good men who come to teach and die for their
Page 38

efforts. The Jesus myth is still alive and vital, serving


humanity's ever evolving needs.
The great drawback which Fisher sees in all institutionalized religions is represented here. Myth degenerates
into sterile doctrine. The spirit is stifled by the letter. In a
never-ending cycle, today's heresy becomes tomorrow's
dogma. In its need to impose and control, in becoming a
worldly, bureaucratic institution, the medieval Church lost
sight of the Jesus idea. For the Church, it was Satan who
became the personification of independent thought. If so,
such a Satan was "Holy." Fisher's TESTAMENT is a paean to
the holiness of independent thought and free inquiry. To
Richard, Hillel declares: "Only those can be religious, I
sometimes think, in whom the faculties of imagination and
intelligence are highly cultivated." Though they are the
product of an Atheist and Humanist, this credo gives
Fisher's novels a kind of quasi-religious atmosphere of
their own. Fisher sees in the flesh-and-blood events and
ideas of the past the myth of questing humanity, and the
engine of that quest as the deep, psychological, ill-understood forces which drive the 'soul'. For him, the essence of
future evolution must be one of understanding, so that the
soul can progress from fear to courage, from neurosis to
sanity, from ignorance to knowledge. Vardis Fisher devoted a good part of his life to the TESTAMENT OF MAN in the
hope of making a contribution to that "great task."

POSTSCRIPT
After he completed My Holy Satan, Fisher went on to
revise a tetralogy of autobiographical novels which he had
written prior to the TESTAMENT and which had brought him
considerable renown. Having completed his vast investigation of history, he felt that he better understood his own
life experience in the light of the past, and by extension
that of modern society. The original four-novel opus was
trimmed to a single book, Orphans in Gethsemane; and he
concluded it with the story of the research and writing of
the TESTAMENT itself and the difficulties which the project
brought to his life. Reading Orphans after the TESTAMENT
gives one a further fascinating insight into many of the latter's ideas and their sources, as well as the workings of
Fisher's own mind.
It is a tribute to Fisher's integrity and to that of his
sources that most of the content of the TESTAMENT is as
potentially valid today as it was at the time of writing.
Some emphases have changed and certain ideas have
become more complex, but few of his theses have been
undermined and probably none discredited. In many of the
TESTAMENT'S ideas Fisher was ahead of his time. As he
faced the antagonisms and frustrations over publishing,
he consoled himself by saying that he was writing for the
long term. He may not have been far wrong. Many elements in society are still anti-intellectual
and would
rather suppress ideas than examine them. We still need
the refreshing audacity of Vardis Fisher's TESTAMENT OF
MAN and its fearless attempt to explore our heritage.

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

REVIEWS

Toe Devill'\ade
tle Do It
A Review Of
So Help Me God:
Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality
(Produced by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University)

By Kevin Courcey, RN

na report published in November of 2001, Columbia


University's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse
(CASA) reviewed the statistics on religiosity and substance abuse in adults and teens. They also "conducted an
unprecedented survey of attitudes and experiences" of
members of the clergy about their perceptions of substance
abuse problems in their congregations, and their preparedness to deal with those problems. In a summary statement,
CASA President Joseph Califano Jr., former head of
Health, Education and Welfare under Jimmy Carter,
writes:
The key finding of this two-year study is this: if ever
the sum were greater than the parts it is in combining the
power of God, religion and spirituality with the power of
science and professional medicine to prevent and treat
substance abuse and addiction. A better understanding by
the clergy of the disease of alcohol and drug abuse and
addiction among members of their congregations and a
better appreciation by the medical profession, especially
psychiatrists and psychologists, of the power of God, religion and spirituality to help patients with this disease
hold enormous potential for prevention and treatment of
substance abuse and addiction that can help millions of
Americans and their families.
The study emphasizes that we are a country of "believers"; that 95% of us believe in God, 92% are affiliated With
an established religion, "In God We Trust" is emblazoned
on our currency, etc. They boldly assert that non-believers
are more prone to substance abuse:
Adults who never attend religious services are almost
twice as likely to drink, three times likelier to smoke, five
times likelier to use illicit drugs other than marijuana,
seven times likelier to binge drink and almost eight times
likelier to use marijuana than adults who attend religious
services weekly or more.
These are horrifying statistics. It would seem that nonbelievers are a bunch of low-life scum who are half in the
Parsippany, New Jersey

bag most of the time on any of a half-dozen different legal


and illegal drugs, while religious folks are content to go to
church several times a week and spend their free time volunteering at their local homeless shelters.
But perhaps a closer look at this research is in order.

FUNDING SOURCES
As those of you who are familiar with this genre of
research might have guessed, this research was funded by
the Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation's
stated goal is: "By promoting collaboration and clinical
research into the relationship between spirituality and
health and documenting the positive medical aspects of
spiritual practice, the Foundation hopes to contribute to
the reintegration of faith into modern life." Notice that the
Foundation is only interested in funding research that documents the positive medical effects of religion and spirituality. This puts significant pressure on the researchers to
"mine the data" until they can come up with positive findings.
Singled out for his contribution to this research was
David Larson, M.D., President of the International Center
for the Integration of Health and Spirituality (formerly
called the National Institute for Health Care Research).
The Templeton Foundation funds Larson's spirituality and
health research ventures at roughly $3-4 million per year.
The CASA study also frequently cites Templeton-funded
researchers Harold Koenig and Michael McCullough to bolster their claims for the positive effects of religion on
health.
The Bodman Foundation
also helped fund this
research. Like the Templeton Foundation, this group also
has a conservative, religious viewpoint, and is known for
funding religious homeless programs, school-choice/voucher research, sexual abstinence-only programs, welfare-towork reform, and faith-based solutions to drug abuse, teen
pregnancy, and youth violence. It was at the request of the
Bodman Foundation that this research was undertaken.

Winter 2001-2002

Page 39

THE DATA SETS


CASA used several data sets to generate their figures.
Much of their religious affiliation and religious belief data
was obtained from surveys done by the Gallup Poll. This
organization has been accused of slanting their survey
questions over the years to inflate the apparent number of
religious believers in the country. For example, what started out in the '50s as "Do you believe in the God of the
Bible?" has devolved into questions about belief in a "universal spirit" or "animating force."
Fortunately, just this year, the City University of New
York repeated their American Religious Identification
Survey (ARIS). ARIS surveyed over 50,000 households
about their religious beliefs, affiliation with specific
denominations, church attendance, etc. Since theARIS survey was not funded by religious organizations, its data are
more objective and designed to elicit a deeper understanding of religious belief in America. In fact, ARIS specifically
changed the wording of the question they used to ascertain
religious identification, adding the phrase "if any" to make
the question "What is your religion, if any?" They did this
because they felt that previous surveys (such as those used
by Gallup) had subtly influenced respondents to choose a
religion by not offering an alternative. Whether as a result
of this change, or reflecting a major shift away from belief
in the population, they found that the number of people
choosing "none" or "no religion" has more than doubled
since 1990. While the ARIS survey did not investigate substance abuse, it does give us a more reliable reference point
to evaluate the claims for religious belief and participation
made by the CASA study, which based its data primarily on
the more limited General Social Survey, and data supplied
by Gallup.

THE CLAIMS AND PROPOSED SOLUTIONS


OF THE CASA REPORT
The CASA report can be summarized

as follows:

We are a nation of believers and our faith is very


important to us.
Religious faith and practice has a prophylactic effect
against substance abuse.
Religious faith and practice can be essential in recovery from substance abuse.
Non-believers abuse substances at significantly higher rates.
The clergy believe substance abuse is a big problem.
The clergy is unprepared to deal with substance
abuse problems.
The medical establishment, especially mental health
professionals, are unreasonably reluctant to use religious
interventions with clients.
The clergy therefore need to be trained on how to handle substance abuse problems, and should preach about
this topic from the pulpit.
The clergy should contact local treatment centers in
order to offer their services to the clients there, and to educate the providers on the "promising effects" of religious
counseling on substance-abuse treatment
Physicians should recognize that many clients desire
spiritual help, and should refer them to spiritually based
treatment programs
Page 40

The report makes it obvious that in order to cut down


on teen drug use, parents should impress upon our youth
the importance of religion and make sure they attend religious services at least weekly. The report also stresses the
need to provide religious treatment options to all clients
with substance-abuse problems. It is implied that intervention strategies that do not incorporate God and religion
are likely to fail.
This focus fits well with the Templeton goal of "reintegrating" faith into our lives, and they are more than willing
to impose that goal on a vulnerable population seeking
treatment for addiction.

THE ART OF SKEWING A SURVEY


Several methods were used to skew the results of this
survey. First, the figures used for religious identification
and practice were inflated. While the CASA report repeatedly states that 95% of Americans believe in God, and that
92% of us are affiliated with a specific religion, the 2001
ARIS survey shows this to be false. The percentage of
American adults who self identify with a specific religion
has dropped to 81 %. Of those who do claim a religious affiliation, 40% stated that neither they nor their family members attend services. The ARIS survey also found that 14%
of those surveyed chose "no religion." This means that a
substantial majority of the adults in this country either
profess no religion, or have so little interest in organized
religion that neither they nor their family members go to
services. This fatally undercuts the argument that the way
to curb drug abuse is to train clergy. Why expend resources
addressing the problem where, according to their data, it is
least prevalent? This would be equivalent to saying that
since syphilis is concentrated in the South, and living on
the West coast seems to have a prophylactic effect against
contracting syphilis, we should better educate medical professionals in the west on how to treat syphilis.
Why would CASA use inflated figures for religious
belief? In order to project the image of a huge, receptive
client base for religiously oriented intervention services, of
course. This would then be used to justify funneling taxpayer funds to these faith-based groups. But aren't they
simultaneously saying that the religious are less likely to
abuse substances? Yes, but for them there is no contradiction in saying that the non-religious are more likely to
abuse substances so we should train the clergy to treat
them. One need only recall that the goal of the Templeton
Foundation is to reintegrate faith into American life. This
approach is not as concerned with appropriately treating
an illness as it is with bringing the wayward sheep back
into the fold.
Their approach is likely doomed to failure, in any case.
When Templeton funded Dale Matthews to do research
evaluating Christian prayer for arthritis sufferers in conservative Florida, they were unable to recruit sufficient volunteers to carry out their research design. A public demand
for religiously oriented healthcare interventions
is not
going to materialize just because Templeton and CASA
would like it to happen.
The second method used to skew this survey was arbitrarily defining the groups to be studied. If one's goal were
to show the religious to be a relatively healthy norm, while

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

non-believers are shown to be a drug-abusing fringe group,


you would need to artificially expand the religious group
and restrict the non-believer group to achieve this end.
In order to expand the "religious" category, the concept
of being "spiritual" was added to it. This is how the CASA
group defined spirituality for the purposes of this report:
Spirituality, on the other hand, is a deeply personal
and individualized response to God, a higher power or an
animating force in the world. One does not have to engage
in religious rituals, belong to a church or even believe in
Godto be spiritual, .. Identifying proxies for spirituality is
more difficult because of its highly individual and personal nature. Such proxies include the extent of prayer or
meditation, importance individuals attach to their spiritual life and personal statements linked to purpose in life
and hope for the future.
People can be declared Atheists, yet if they have a positive outlook on life, i.e. have decided their life has meaning and purpose, and they hope to make the world a better
place, this survey would count them as "religious or spiritual."
By creating such a positive and all-inclusive definition
of what constitutes "religious or spiritual," the group that
remains, the vehemently "non-religious," becomes an
extremely depressed and negative sub-group of the population. In almost every case, this study compares this small,
negativistic subgroup to those who attend church weekly or
more often, and to whom religious belief is very important.
I would submit that few Americans fall into either of these
groups.
The ARIS survey tells us that 14% ofthe adult population is non-religious and at least another 40% don't attend
services. You would expect the CASA "non-religious" group
to reflect these percentages. However, when the CASA survey compares alcohol use among those who think religion
is very important versus those who strongly disagree that
religion is important, the CASA survey admits that this
"non-religious" comparison group represents only 3% of the

population. The data are further skewed because the


respondents are not asked if they feel religion in general is
important or not, but are' asked whether they feel their
religious views are important.
Even totally secular
Atheists would be likely to answer that they felt their religious views are important; so, once again, the remaining
group who feel strongly that their own religious views are
unimportant
is a very negativistic subgroup, and are
expressing views consistent with the low self-esteem and
negative self-image that often accompanies substance
abuse. By crafting this subgroup for its comparisons, the
CASA survey guarantees that the more positive and inclusive "religious" group will have lower rates of substance
abuse.
The third clue that this report is distorting its findings
is found in how they defined the problem. The report is full
of statements that seem to reflect serious health problems.
For example: "Adults who never attend religious services
are almost twice as likely to drink as those who attend religious services weekly or more often," and "91% of women
over age 59 who do not identify themselves as religious
consume alcohol." Yes, both sentences are about alcohol
use, and contain fancy scientific and statistical jargon, but
what are they really talking about here? The definition of

alcohol abuse in this case is having had one drink in the


past month. Even your humble author can admit to having
had a glass of wine with dinner at least once in the past
month. I don't feel this represents a national health crisis
worthy of statistical analysis.
A more disturbing statistic is CASA's claim that 24% of
those who never attend religious services reported having
five or more drinks on one occasion in the past month.
However, in a footnote, the researchers note that many of
these problem drinkers could be college students, especially those in fraternities. They also admit that while those
who have little or no interest in religion drink alcohol and
party more frequently than their religious peers, the rates

of alcoholism do not differ between the groups.


A final fatal flaw in this report is the fact that no multivariate analysis was done. When assessing the relation@]

@].

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Prayer Fails At Mayo Clinic


According to a study published in the 11 December 2001 issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, a scientific
study at the prestigious clinic that publishes the journal has failed to prove that prayer helps patients. A sixmonth study was carried out on 799 heart-disease patients, half of whom were unknowingly prayed for by others. The researchers found no significant differences between the two groups in the number of deaths, heart
attacks, hospitalizations,
or strokes. Cardiologist Stephen Kopecky, who led the study, noted that there was a
slight difference between the two groups - 25.6 % of the prayer group experienced some negative outcome, as
compared to 29.3 % in the group that didn't have a prayer - but the difference was not statistically significant.
The study has drawn criticism as an attempt to measure "God's will." After hearing the results, Dr. Greg
Plotnikoff, director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota fumed "I don't
think we can randomize God. I don't believe we can truly understand God's will. And I don't think that prayer
is another pharmaceutical
agent." The Rev. John Hatgidakis, who teaches about "spirituality" to University of
Minnesota medical students (shouldn't Minnesota be more sophisticated than this"), argued that people who
don't know they are being prayed for may nevertheless "benefit in ways that we can't know or can't see."
Yes, of course. But that is just another way of saying the results are undetectable - which is exactly what
the Mayo Clinic study showed!

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Parsippany, New Jersey

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Winter 2001-2002

Page 41

ship between any two variables, say alcohol consumption


and religious belief, you must ascertain if you are actually
measuring something other than the target variable. For
example, if you are looking at the relationship between
church attendance and alcohol consumption, you might
find that those who attend church drink less than those
who do not. If your goal was to belittle those who are nonbelievers, you would probably stop right there and publish
your report. But if you are interested in a deeper understanding of the issue, you would subject your data to multivariate analysis - and what you might find is that it is not
that people who attend church drink less, it is people who
are married drink less. The fact that married people tend
to be churchgoers is interesting, but it is unrelated to the
original research question.
According to the ARIS survey, non-believers have a
high rate of being single or unmarried. Analysis might
have shown that the seemingly high rate of substance
abuse in the CASA non-believer category was actually
related to the group's marital status, rather than having
anything to do with their lack of religious belief. A similar
confounding variable is age. The ARIS survey notes that
over one-third of the non-religious are between 18 and 29
years of age. Experimentation with drugs and alcohol tends
to occur at this age. Sometimes discovering how much alcohol is the right amount entails repeated episodes of finding
out how much is too much. Multivariate analysis might
have shown that it was the relative youth of the non-believer group that was the critical variable, not their religious
beliefs. But the CASA researchers did no such analysis.

CONCLUSIONS
Like every Templeton-funded research project before
it, this latest report suffers from researcher bias. From the
title "So Help Me God," to the fact that "God" as an actual
entity is consistently cited as important to addicts' treatment (rather than a "belief in God") this report exhibits a
religious, rather than scientific, slant on the research. It

Page 42

used inflated figures for religious belief, arbitrarily created


misleading categories to skew the results, and in many
cases exaggerated the severity of the issues being studied.
Its conclusions are misleading and biased toward faithbased solutions.
Do some people benefit from religiously based substance abuse programs such as AA and NA? Of course.
They are helpful to many, and should be continued. Should
priests, pastors and rabbis learn more about substance
abuse and its treatment? Yes. Educating all community
leaders on substance abuse issues and treatment is a good
idea.
But it is a significant violation of the public trust when
a University research center compromises its research in
order to appease a funding organization, especially when
subsequent public policy decisions could affect peoples'
lives. Where the CASA report specifically fails the public is
in not demanding more non-religious interventions for
drug and alcohol abuse. It is difficult to find rational, nonreligious alternatives to AA and NA. Rescue Missions are
often sponsored by religious organizations. And while I disagree with the CASA report on the extent to which this
problem affects the non-believer population, substance
abuse is a problem in our society, and with the number of
non-religious adults increasing dramatically (more than
doubling in the past ten years), it is imperative to find ways
to reach this group with education and treatment options
which they can accept. The vast majority of adults in this
country are not going to be reached by having sermons on
substance abuse preached from the pulpit since they are
not going to be in church in the first place. In Oregon,
Washington, Idaho and Wyoming the non-religious are now
the largest denomination in the state. We need to spend
more of our resources on secular alternatives to religiously
based support and treatment options - not only for addiction, but also for the homeless, the hungry, pregnant teens,
and at-risk youth. No one should be forced to pray or profess a belief in a higher power, in order to receive a meal,
obtain medical treatment, or join a support group to maintain sobriety. It is simply un-American.

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

DY~NI AN ATH!~ST~N
AMER~CA
By Chris Morton

ying in America is a complex and distasteful process


for most American families and often a taboo subject. As Timothy Leary puts it: "Most human beings
are taught to face death, like life, as victims - helpless,
fearful, resigned. We're schooled and counseled - programmed to act out a life of scripts based on our worst tendencies toward fear and self-doubt ....Throughout history
'fear of dying' has been used by priests, police, politicians,
and physicians to undermine individualistic thinking, to
increase our dependence on authority and to glorify victimization."!
He goes on: "Think of all the hot-button issues that get
the church fathers' panties all in a bunch: conception, testtube fertilization, contraception, out-of-wedlock pregnancy,
abortion, euthanasia, suicide, cloning, life extension, out-ofbody experiences' occult experimentation, astral travel scenarios, altered states, death-and-rebirth reports, extraterrestrial speculation, cryonics, cyborgization (i.e., replaceable body parts), sperm banks, egg banks, DNA banks, artificial intelligence, artificial life, and personal speculation
about experimentation with immortality. All things that
experiment with the basic issues of birth, embodiment, and
death are anathema to the orthodox seed shepherds, the
engineers of the feudal and industrial
ages.... Why?
Because ifthe flock doesn't fear death, then the grip of rel igious and political management is broken."2 The psychological fraternity often considers people who think about
death to be ill; terms such as clinically depressed follow
them. Death as a cultural/social bete noire has developed
because of the attitudes of formal religions to the end oflife,
their falsehoods about life after death, or an existence after
death (reincarnation, for example), as controlled by a judgmental deity. In America all of these threatening religiotheistic perceptions of death, and the fears that they engender, have become integral to the development of a highincome death industry; pre-death medical treatment,
cadaver dressing including makeup, artificial under skin

Chris Morton is the New York State Director for


American Atheists, Inc. He spends time helping inner
city youth bridge the digital divide and building and
maintaining Web-sites. He has a PhD and enjoys reading, writing, photography and traveling.
Parsippany, New Jersey

inserts, wigs, freezing, embalming, burials, cremations,


urn-production, casket-building, funerals, home visiting,
soul saving and church/temple services are all part of this.
The Atheist is left in limbo. As Robert Hatch says: "For once
we complete life's passage, we enter a realm where two
divergent forces control our destiny; the undertaker our
body, and God our soul."3
Atheists must face this multiple-layered,
ingrained
challenge to their assertions that there are no gods and
there is no afterlife. And as Atheists they must come to
terms with this position, not only as an intellectual exercise, but as part of their emotional well-being and their scientifically defined way of living and viewing life. To face
dying is to being able to prepare for this last part of living
- to embrace it as an end and not to fear it as the religious
would have you do. It is a fundamental part of who you
have chosen to be - an Atheist.
Because death in America is so tightly interwoven with
religious ritual and political regulation, it is very difficult
for an Atheist to satisfactorily sidestep their controls.
Obviously, Atheists, are not interested in having prayers
said over their corpses or some kind of processional cemetery burial (particularly to lie among all those theists!). But
the problems go much further than this.
As an American Atheist I believe that I am entitled to
control my death as I am entitled to control my life - that
is part of my right to individual freedom. But the religions
do not agree that we have the right to control our deaths,
and neither do our political regulating institutions whose
members are usually more-or-less Christian. It is here that
the really serious and complex problems and conflicts begin
for the Atheist.
Dying is a process, death is the end. It is during dying
that the first problems begin. An Atheist is a member of
Homo sapiens. He or she is a biological machine whose
function is to expand and develop its species and to protect
all other species dependent on it in this lifetime. There is no
"afterlife." Therefore, life itself is very valuable. To me (and
this may not hold for all Atheists) if my life ceases to be
valuable to me and to others, it can and should be endedto use another machine-term, I can be powered down, or as
Timothy Leary puts it, "deanimated."4
If I am still
functioning, somewhat, this choice is a hard idea for most
people (particularly Atheists because of their love of this

Winter 2001-2002

Page 43

life) to accept. So let me take a small part of it for elaboration and leave the rest to your own choice.
Let us begin, then, by talking only of pre-death problems where dying takes a while. Each state in America has
different laws regarding an individual's choice of medical
treatment when that individual can no longer make clearly articulated demands. Some now accept a "Living Will"
(the idea was introduced in 1967 by Luis Kutner of the
Euthanasia
Society). Some require a medical "Proxy"
which is signed before illness overtakes one's ability to
communicate, so that someone selected by the dying person
can make decisions for him or her. Some states accept neither.
The problems of choices for dying are exacerbated by
hospitals and self-styled legal religious groups (such as the
National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and
Disabled, Inc. run by James Bopp, Jr.) who believe that the
right to die is not the individual's, but must be dictated, to
the end, by a god (although they seem to think they are this
god's mouthpiece). And then, of course, there is the money.
Hospitals, hospices, doctors, nursing organizations, nursing homes, equipment renters, medical technology experts,
and drug companies all make billions of dollars a year from
keeping people alive while at the point of death (for the
horrifying details of the effect of this look at the case of
Karen Quinlan in 1976 or Carzon v Director in 1990).5
There is something wrong with a system that forces me to
put the following statement in my Living Will:
If I am in a medical facility/hospital that is supported
by a religious denomination I must be moved to an alternative secular facility immediately, regardless of my condition.It must be made clear to all medical staff dealing
with me that I do not believe in a god, therefore I do not
believe in miracles or "acts of god." It must also be made
clear to all medical staff that my non-beliefs, as they affect
my treatment, supersede their beliefs, therefore, they may
not impinge their beliefs on their choice of treatment for
me.f
And so, just prior to death when we are often physically
and mentally at our weakest and most vulnerable, Atheists
are again faced with a fight for their own freedoms; a fight
whose rules are created by theists, religious dogma, religious history, religiosity, political partisanship, the courts
and money. Choices in dying must be carefully considered
by Atheists. Can you create an environment with your supporters to exercise control over where you die, when you
die, how you die, how much you suffer when you are dying,
and how to maintain your Atheist tenets throughout the
process?
After death the Atheist's fight continues, and, if anything, it is both more concerted and dirtier because it
involves the body disposal industry. For the most part, this
is a highly organized, small group of large companies,
including four very large ones (SCI, Loewen, Stewart, and
Carriage Services) and eight smaller ones, none of whom
advertise their services openly, but work under the guise of
locally named funeral homes with locally known people even old families - running them. Their aim is not compassion and support for the bereaved, but the collection of
the highest fees possible from anguished and emotionally
vulnerable relatives. It also involves those who believe that
Page 44

the dying and the dead must be saved from damnation - a


highly organized and effective combination when their
goals are reinforced by family grief and guilt.
The body disposal industry is, historically, an outgrowth of the religions which still maintain strong influences over it, and often have direct financial ties to it
(handouts, direct fees, fee sharing are some of their fiscal
arrangements).
For example, In chapter 15 of "What
Happens When You Die; From Your Last Breath To The
First Spadeful," a common type of death-by-numbers religious-based guide, only four religious practices and their
funeral rites are listed: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and
Wakes (although a "wake" is hardly a religion on its own)
- apparently all the rest fit in somewhere under these categories, including Atheists.
In the last thirty years body disposal has been left to
local undertakers
(sorry, Funeral Directors), or, more
recently the large funeral companies who all took their
cues from the deceased's religious denomination. However,
this is changing because many church bureaucracies have
begun to see how they might swell their coffers by "owning" cemeteries and mortuaries and charging large prices
for funerals:
"The Pittsburgh diocese, however, announced a few
months ago that it was setting up 'The Catholic Funeral
Plan' to promote with their own sales people. According to
the functionaries I talked with there, the aim of the plan is
to: Spread the mission of mercy, Minister to the grieving,
Protect the teachings of the church and liturgy ... "7 And:
''Yes, the Church will benefit from the rent and income
from these operations."8
Death and body disposal in America are synonymous
with past religious practices; the old church-yard with its
bent and broken tomb stones, or the memorial chapel, or
the ash urns sealed in small cavities behind temple walls,
or the cemetery with its crosses and angels and tombs. And
the rituals - there are always those rituals. All of these
link our current disposal efforts to past religious practices
where they prepare the holy receptacle of a departed soul
while prayers are said to speed that soul on its way to the
good afterlife. Not good places for Atheists to be!
Today a cold and calculating death industry, and often
unscrupulous religious groups, try to cater to everyone.
The cold, impersonal Unitarian rooms of their "chapels"
can be changed at the blink of an eye from an over decorated Roman Catholic wake with open coffin, plastic statues of Mary and Jesus, overflowing flowers, massive crosses and priests and cardinals in scarlet and black and gold
and white, to the plain, almost sterile Jewish shiva with no
decorations, no coffin, no flowers, mirrors covered with
black cloth, and black-coated rabbis. Each ceremony can be
as expensive as another, each ceremony is pumped with
religiosity. And somewhere in all of this (or perhaps outside
it) the dying Atheist must find a place.
Atheists should attempt to avoid all of this and, they
should find a way to have their bodies disposed of in a way
that is in line with their Atheism. In my wallet I have a
telephone number on a card in plain view. This is the number of the local university medical school biomedical unit.
As an Atheist and a supporter of scientific advancement for the good of my species and the improvement of

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

life, I have bequeathed my body to the medical college.


They will use it for one of two things: medical student
training or experimental medical procedures. They collect
my body at their own expense, and they will dispose of its
sliced up, formalin-smelling remains when they are done
with it. Hopefully it will have helped science in a small way
to further benefit humankind.
Apart from providing an inert biological machine for
medical science to study and expand our knowledge, I am
serving my own purpose through the arrangements I have
made. The body disposal industry will not get near my body
or my family - they will not pick me up and handle me; I
will not be embalmed, which is often done automatically
unless funeral directors are told specifically not to do it.
This is a pointless practice - it preserves nothing; after
"embalming" bodies they turn into bacteriological slime
anyway.
And the other costs?
These include keeping my corpse in the mortician's
freezer; giving mourners a place to congregate and show
the family respect; the flowers; the snacks; the music
(piped or we can provide a live organist - and what would
they play at an Atheist's wake?); the cars for the entourage;
the organization of the burial plot, or the slot in the wall of
heavenly peace after the crematorium has sent over someone's ashes - they burn corpses in bunches, so you get a
mixture - nice for roses, but not quite what people think
they're getting; and the rituals with priests or rabbis or
shamans, or whatever.
Everything is modeled on a pseudo-religious ceremony,
everything is part of a vision that comes out of a supposed
relationship with a deity of some sort. And everything usually costs $10,000.00 and up. Dying isn't cheap. It is said
that the recent Kennedy son's (Roman Catholic) cremation
and double burial at sea cost taxpayers around a million
dollars - an expensive proposition particularly when I had
to pay part of it and I am an Atheist who believes in none
of it.
The dying and death processes will probably not take
place as Atheists would like them to, unless they are very
careful and have a lot of determined support. State laws,
hospital regulations, doctor's fears about prosecution, religio-Iegal intervention, geographical and political factors, a
family's grief, religious beliefs and superstitions, priests
looking for a "soul" to save, and the speed at which the body
disposal industry moves after contact by their network of
informers; all are against us.
Results of an uncontrolled dying process will have
some of the following results: being kept alive artificially if
you do not die immediately. Once the processes of being
kept alive, artificially, begin they could go on interminably
because of fear and religiousllegal
intervention.
The
amount of pain-killers requested to deal with pain will not
be administered because most doctors are afraid of medical
board reviews where they must explain why they prescribed such high doses, and because most of them just
don't understand pain control. If someone is dying, why
dither about worrying about speeding up the dying process
with to many painkillers? Because a miracle may occur,
that's why - their god, their fear, follows them everywhere.
If you are considering passive euthanasia (food, liquid, and
Parsippany, New Jersey

medicine stoppage, with only painkillers to support comfort) or doctor-assisted dying, forget it.
The following things will happen, particularly
if
Atheists die where nobody knows them, away from their
home region. The local body disposal (funeral home) people
will whip the body away from the hospital morgue to their
refrigerators (remember the costs begin when they leave
their funeral parlor) before anyone can do anything - and
then, because possession is nine-tenths of the law, they will
begin their carefully rehearsed process of undermining any
alternatives but their own. They will call distraught relatives and say that they have the loved one's body for safekeeping. The relatives will agree, and in their grief they
will forget to tell the mortician not to embalm the body. The
body will be embalmed. The costs are now around $4,000.00
and rising. If the Atheist's body has been bequeathed to a
medical school, they will no longer accept it because it has
been tampered with. So the Atheist's body must now be
buried or burned.
I don't fear death at all. As a committed Atheist I have
come to terms with the end of my life as a natural, anticipated process. I think about it and talk about it as an
everyday item. Dying and death have always seemed to be
something final, simple, and very commonplace. But what I
do fear, desperately, is the way my fellow non-Atheist
humans are going to abuse me as I approach death and
after I die. Even though death is final, I feel so sad that my
wishes as an Atheist will probably not be taken into consideration. At the end of my life, my non-beliefs will be
superseded by others' beliefs because I will no longer have
a voice. Because ofthe insidious involvement of formal religions in every facet of dying and death and instead of continuing to help my species after death - as my Atheism
demands - I will be thrown away.
Atheists need to deal with these problems together; to
make it clear what their wishes are; to demand treatment
that accords with their Atheism; to fight against intrusion
by the religious; and to fight to maintain our Atheism by
donating ourselves to science. Much of what we face can be
made easier by loyal relatives and friends. Much of what
happens can be supported by clear, written demands.
Atheism, is to me, a way oflife - I and others like me should
be able to make it our way of dying and death, too. And of
course there is the Atheist's life: "As well-spent day brings
happy sleep, so life well lived brings happy death."9

REFERENCES
(1) Page 110: Design For Dying.
(2) Page 114: Design For Dying.
(3) Page 4 (Prologue) "From Your Last Breath To Your First
Spadeful"
(4) Page 144: "Design For Dying"
(5)"Tough Love", Page 131ft, "The Good Death."
(6) From my own Living Will, Page 1.
(7) "Pittsburgh Catholic Funerals" from the FAMSAWeb page:
http://vbiweb.champlain.edulfamsalpachurch.htm
(8) "Catholics Targeted" from the FAMSAweb page:
http://vbiweb.champlain.edulfamsalcatholic.htm
(9) Michael Angelo.
See Further Reading page 52

Winter 2001-2002

Page 45

J Dreamt the World

Was ~quare
By Francis Seth Dudley

'
'Y
-s-,

he dream, for Tesh, was not a new one. He couldn't


" count on all his fins the nights he found himself suddenly awake, gills fluttering rapidly, as if he had just
escaped some relentless predator. In the dream, he saw
himself as if he were disconnected from his small, scaly
body. Above him was a bright calming light. The air around
him. felt odd and thin, and whistled past him. Surprisingly,
he ~ould still breathe. Below, he saw odd creatures moving
around on the green bottom. Around him were so many
beautiful colors, and above, a blue like he had never seen in
the 'f0.rId. Suddenly, he plunged down as if he had no control of his fins, and splashed into the water. He floated
down in the gloom, towards the bottom of the world. As he
descended, he saw pieces of himself falling faster than he
did. There went a piece of tail fin - there was what looked
like, part of his digestive system - and all around, his silvery cales slowly fell, suspended in the water and oscillating sI~wly downwards, like so many twinkling stars in the
half-light .. Smaller fish greedily nipped and bit at the
pieces as they fell. Then, the part that always woke him out
of his fitful sleep - he saw his own severed head lying sideways on the bottom, his gills still moving rhythmically, and
the one eye on top"- staring at him.
Me hovered in he water, close to the bottom, his breath
not quite yet caught: "What does this dream mean, if anything?" he asked himself. "This has to stop. I think I'll
speak with Scaum about this dream. What could it mean?"
"Speak witSea m, will ya? I say, it is about time yous
decided 0 spea
to somebody about dis nasty dreama
yours." Tesh heard a clicking sound behind him. "Every
night you wakes me up wit da yell a smella dese thoughts of
yours." Tesh spun around, and indeed it was Scaum, sporting a shiny; n~)vshell for his back. His stalked eyes twitched
agitatedly. Scaum clicked and clacked hiS'way closer to him.
'Iesh knew his frie cl did not in:fend to listen to his dream,
or his thoughts ..The world was a small place, and it happened quite often.
It s~ould, be noted that thoughts and speaking underwater ar quite different than elsewhere. Fish, of course,
have no voeal-cords a!l1dtheir lips do not move in the shapes
ecessary for speech, even ifthey did have air in their bod.es to force through them to make sounds. Fish, instead,
think what
ey wish to sp,eak, ~n9. ese tHou~
take the
orm of odors in the wat
otneL., - smell. The
4

~i1

Page 46

advantage of this is that very rarely is anyone -misunderstood, for their exact thought is transmitted into the surrounding water. The problem with this mode of communication is, that you could find yourself being eavesdropped
upon, when you did not intend for anyone else to hear what
you said. Compounding this, there is no difference between
speaking a thought, and having the thought. The smell goes
into the water just the same. Very often, fish listen to other
fish as they think, so even one's thoughts are not one's own.
There is not much privacy in the underwater world.
"I don't knows what to make of 'em eeda, you. AIls I
know is all night, I hears you dreamin, and all night I sits
in my shell, and grinds my claws togedda. r::kbows we's
friends'nall, but a crab's gotta sleep. Coupla times, I almost
felt like just jumpin offa da edge uh da world!" Said Scaum
unsympathetically,
his antennae stiffiy erect. ~'Ya knows
what I'd do if I wuz you? Well I asks myself- who's the
smartest creatures in da woild? If I had a problem I couldn't figger out, I'd go see da Ladies. Dey'll tell ya what fer."
Tesh considered this. The Ladies - it was difficult
enough to even get close enough to them to speak, and if
you did get close enough, well, Tesh had quite ,u.ew friends
who disappeared mysteriously while swimming near, them.
The idea of going to see them intentionally had ;nJvet 6' en
done before. With limited options, Tesh thanked 'his friend,
and began to swim towards the other si~tht!
world.
Then it was day.
Tesh decided to take the route
a,
lQ}:'Le.d~t e edge of
the world. Looking over its edge always gave him a strange
feeling, like there was so much he didn't know about., that
maybe this world he knew, wasn't the only world. Like he
was part of something that was so much bigger, but he was
just too minute and insignificant to understand.
These
thoughts came to him as he swam, and he looked ar~nd
himself nervously. If the other fish heard those thoughts he'd be lucky to keep his fins. AI tlte other fish in the world
were steadfast in theF'n.Otion that this world was the only
world, and that was just the way it was. Qnce, he asked a
group of them, who ere schooling e statiCally: in ci~cles,
staring blankly, all thinkihg-tneir-one-(world
houghts, what
proof they had that there was no other world? His answer
s
e ritt
II their little mouths almost simultao
't- er
~e lost a piece of his left pectoral fin
hat a J was
lis son wel ..-earned:;l2o
ot Question."

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

Still swimming slowly, he peered over the edge and concentrated on the funny shapes he saw off the edge of the world.
Sometimes the shapes moved. They were moving now.
At that moment, Tesh felt the water above him vibrating. Glancing up, he saw that some other fish were eating
the food that fell from the sky. They jumped and clamored,
all greedily trying to get more than the other fish did. Once
a day, brightly colored flakes fell from above. Where they
came from, the fish did not care. They considered it to be
part of the world, the way it is. This was also not to be questioned. Tesh swam on, ignoring them. He had business to
attend to.
He began to hear the distant thrum of the Ladies. Most
fish didn't go to this side of the world, because of this
monotonous low drone. When you first heard it on the
periphery of their area, it smelled sweet and enticing. The
closer you got to them, the louder the smell got. It made you
dizzy after a while, and had the effect of drawing you closer, partly out of gnawing hunger, partly out of disorientation. Tesh did not know what might happen to him. He only
hoped he would find relief from his troublesome dreams. He
had nowhere else to turn.
The water seemed denser on this side of the world, and
Tesh began to find it more difficult to breathe. He could see
the Ladies now. They were so beautiful - pink and purple
and peach-colored - waving and swaying like thick long
hair in the liquid breeze, anchored to a large outcropping of
rock. Now he could hear what they were saying - what the
source of the thrum was that could be heard so far away.
They waved enticingly, sounding like a thousand thousand
beautiful voices, "comecomecome... closiosioserrrrrrr
.
dondonnntttt ... beeee ... affffraaaaidd ... weeeee
arrree .
ffforrr ... yooou
yooou ... aarree
fffoorrrr
ussssss .
comecomecome closlosloseerrrrr
" These sounds repeated maddeningly, growing in intensity as Tesh approached.
He could see little orange fish diving in and out of them,
laughing and giggling as ifthey had not a care in the world.
Tesh inched closer to the Ladies - instinctively knowing to
touch them would be death. These orange fish may be
immune and happy, but he was not.
"I have come to ask a question of you!!", Tesh said loudly. Glancing at the ground, he noticed that it was covered
with small bones being picked at by tiny shrimp. The
orange fish continued to dive and laugh in the midst of this
graveyard.
The sound of their voices drowned out all thought,
replacing it with their own. He mentally braced himself
against their menacing onslaught of thought.
"Iiiiiiiiitttt ... sssspppeeeakkkkssss ... tttooo
ussssss .
sssiisssteeerrssss ... wwhhhaaattt ... ddoooeesss
iiitttt .
sssaaayyyy?"
"Wise Ladies, tell me why I have these dreams?!!" he
thought, adding the smell of his dream to this, so they
might understand. Each moment near the Ladies was torturous. It was like having your favorite food dangled in
front of you, and wanting it, even though you know it is poisoned. Moments eked by, and the ladies tentacles seemed to
twitch thoughtfully, in contrast to their usual seductive
waving undulations. They then replied, in their smoothly
seductive voice, "Tttooo ... nniiightttt ... yyyooouu ... wwwwiillllll ssseeeee aaaa ... ffffrriieeenddd...
lllooonnngggg ...
Parsippany, New Jersey

gggoooonnneee...
wwweeee...
wwwiiilllll...
aaalllloooowww
ttthhhiiisssss ... ttthhheee ... wwwooorrrlllddd ... iiissss
nnnooottt ... sssqquuaaaarrreeee ... aaasss ...
tthhheeeeyyy ... ttthhhhhiinnkkkk ... "
Tesh fought to retain these thoughts, over the dull
cacophonous roar of the Ladies' response.
"Friends ... coming ... back World ... not ... square ... "
He found himself struggling backwards - away from
the Ladies. It was probably the hardest thing Tesh ever did,
to leave that which was so enticing. The sweetness and
death the Ladies promised almost made his life feel anticlimactic, in retrospect. He swam away, using the last remnants of his energy. Outside their influence, he rested by a
plant, breathing heavily.
Then it was night.
Tesh decided to sleep for a while, under this plant. He
had never been more tired. Seeing the Ladies was a strain
both physically and mentally. He picked a leaf that provided the most cover, and swam underneath. Almost immediately, he began to sleep.
It was some time after this, that he felt foreign
thoughts encroaching on his area. Peeking out from under
the leaf, he saw a dark shape gliding towards his leafy sanctuary. As it approached, he smelled death and decay. It
reminded him of Scaum's cave, where he brought the carrion he found on the bottom to eat. Yet at the same time, the
smell was strangely familiar. He saw that what the Ladies
had said was true, for this was his old friend Tolpa.
However, it was he, and it was not, for this fish was not
whole. Large chunks of his body were missing, and bones
protruded from it at awkward angles. As he approached,
Tesh saw that where the eyes should be, there were only
empty sockets, with pink and gray tattered flesh visible
inside.
"Tolpa, are you sent from the Ladies? What happened
to you? Please, come no closer, I can hear you from there,"
said Tesh, backing away slightly from this semblance.
"Ahhhh old friend, yes, the Ladies have allowed me to
see you. My fate awaits you also, if you continue in the
direction you are going. I too, went to see the Ladies. I was
maddened as are you, in looking off the edge of the world. I
saw shapes moving beyond the barrier -lights that moved,
and once I saw what looked like two huge eyes, examining
me with an odd sort of intelligence, as I looked at them. As
Tolpa relayed his tale, Tesh's eyes wandered over Tolpa's
body, noticing small creatures inside his body cavity, snacking on him as he spoke. "I went to the Ladies, and asked
them these things.", he continued. "They sent my Father to
see me in my sleep that night, much as I am seeing you now.
What he showed me, I will now show you, if you wish. What
you do with this knowledge is your concern. I caution you
though, you will never be content in this world again, if you
choose to come."
Tesh swished his fins in thought over this, and replied,
"Friend, I am not content. Something is wrong with this
world. I know there is more to it, though I cannot imagine
what it is. I have seen these shapes moving in the ether,
beyond the edge of the world. I wonder how it is that food
simply drops from the sky. I wonder why night and day both
come at an instant. I wonder until my brain aches.
Everyone else is so content and accepting. They eat and

Winter 2001-2002

Page 47

chatter and swim with their dull stares and gaping mouths,
and never inquire. No, my friend, I am not content, and
believe I never will be, until I have these questions
answered. Show me what you will."
With that, Tolpa told Tesh to follow him, and to not be
afraid. They swam up to the surface. Oddly, upon reaching
the surface, they continued up into the air. Tesh looked
around himself wildly as he followed Tolpa. They were in a
square room, high above the world. He now saw his "world"
for what it was. It was square, and very small. He saw living things moving around this room on long things that
protruded from their bodies. One of the creatures was
pressed up against the edge of his world, looking into it
interestedly. The thing reached into a container, and
dropped flakes onto the surface. He saw oblivious little fish
grabbing at the flakes. His world was an enclosure. A cage!
Tolpa gestured with a fin to Tesh, to follow him further.
They swam up, through the ceiling of this room, up into the
air. High above, they stopped again. Tesh saw that the
square room he was in, was part of a bigger square. "A cage
inside a cage," he thought. All around this quadrangle were
green plants - and more of the odd creatures moving
around, reminding him very much of the fish he saw jumping at food flakes moments before. Tesh looked up, and
caught his breath. He saw above, the most beautiful color
blue he had ever seen. It looked like water, but clear and
clean. In the center of all this blue, was a bright light. He
couldn't look straight at it, but it was warm and soothing.
"To think I thought I had seen the sky before," Tesh
thought. Tolpa and Tesh continued to ascend towards the
real sun. The bigger square grew smaller, and Tesh saw
that it was surrounded by many other squares, all getting
very small as they rose. The beautiful blue began to change
to limitless black, and had millions of small points of light
in it. Tolpa arced with a fin overhead to the little points of
light. "Stars," he said. Tesh looked down and he saw that
they were over an impossibly huge spherical shape. He saw
blues, and greens, and browns. Above him still was the
great light. It then occurred to Tesh what his life had been
up to this point, as he watched the real world slowly spin
below them. He lived in a cage, inside another cage, inside
one big round cage.
Tesh turned to look at his friend, and found him vacantly looking back at him. "Now you see," said Tolpa. "This life
you live is hollow, when you see it for what it really is. You
are only a very small fish. I am sorry, my friend. But now
that you know, I wonder how it will be with you. Will you
ever be content to live in that minuscule square again? I
was not, which is why I am as you see me. I only hope for
your sake, you find some sort of equilibrium. I can help you
no further. My last word of guidance is this: You are not the
same fish you were when you fell asleep tonight.
Remember, all the fish you knew before are still the same.
Be content in the knowledge that you are part of something
they have no concept of. Farewell, Tesh. Now, close your
eyes."
Tesh glanced at his friend, then looked down at the
world in awe one last time, before closing his eyes. When he
opened them next, he was back in the room, in the tiny fish
tank, under the little synthetic leaf. He had much to think
about.
Page 48

Then the lights came on.


He decided to swim back to familiar territory, to discuss his revelation with Scaum. As he swam, he thought of
his quandary. "What should I do? Do I stay quiet, or tell
everyone that this 'world' is actually a cruelly small cage?"
As deep in thought as he was, he failed to notice a tiny
transparent fish who was absently nipping at some algae
as he passed. If he had noticed it, he would have seen it
suddenly race off towards a group of larger fish, excitedly
spouting tinny conversation.
"I aint sure wat ta tell ya, but I don't tink I'd be tinkin
dose thoughts too loud, if ya know wat I mean," said
Scaum, looking anxiously from side to side. "Some fish aint
too understandin."
But Tesh had decided. "I've made up my mind. I'm
going to tell everyone so they know. They aren't living the
life they thought they were. They have to be told what
there IS out there! How could they not want to know!" He
raced up to where he knew he would find the largest group
of fish, and found them there lined up, as if they were waiting.
"Fellow fish!" announced Tesh, spreading his fins out,
surveying the group in front of him. "I have come to tell you
what has been shown to me. We are all living as prisoners.
This life is a lie! I have been to see the Ladies and they sent
my long dead friend Tolpa to show me the actual world,
outside these opaque boundaries! Smell these thoughts,
and know they are true!"
One of the larger fish, darker in color, with black
stripes, swam forward to the front of the troop. "We have
smelled your divergent thoughts before, Tesh. They pollute
our untainted water. The world is the world. There is nothing else." The water began to seem cloudy with mumbling
and angry conversation from the others. "We find your
thoughts to be inconsistent with the well being of our
world, Tesh," his teeth gnashing. ''You corrupt our way of
life with notions that there is more than this. We are happy
as we are. This offense to our senses cannot be tolerated
any longer!" With a roar from the angry school, they were
upon him.
Tesh lay on his side, at the bottom of the small tank,
unable to move. He could not feel his tailor any of his fins.
He gulped water convulsively, not seeming to get enough
oxygen, and looking towards the surface with the one eye
that was facing up. As his vision slowly dimmed to blackness, he saw countless tiny points of glimmering light,
floating down towards him.
"Stars," he thought contentedly.

Francis Seth Dudley, an army medic for four years,


has studied funeral directing and nursing (in that
order) and presently is completing a degree in secondary education, planning to teach English at the high
school level. An elaboration of Plato's allegory of the
cave, "I Dreamt the World Was Square" earlier this
year won its author a prize in a short story contest at
Worcester State College

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

Reasoning With the


Unreasonable
By Paul Kondon
et me begin by explaining the title of my talk. What
do I mean by "Reasoning with the Unreasonable"?
Well, the obvious meaning is reasoning - trying to be
understood, making sense - with the unreasonable - those
who don't want to hear it, or try to understand. Surely, this
is what I mean. But, there is another interpretation: coming up with sense, from the nonsensical- in this case, using
the unreasonable premise of a supernatural being to justify
logical, "reasonable" conclusions to follow. I intend to discuss both of these meanings, as they are the main difficulties with which we, as Atheists, must contend daily.
Addressing the second case first, the seemingly unreasonable premise of an intelligent, benevolent supreme
being has withstood centuries of counter arguments,
including the Atheistic argument: the argument from evil.
For those unfamiliar with this, it goes as follows: God is
generally considered to be omniscient, omnipotent, and
omnibenevolent. Problem: evil exists. If God doesn't know
about evil, he is not omniscient. If he knows, but can't stop
it, he is not omnipotent, and if he knows, and can stop it,
but doesn't, he isn't omnibenevolent. Thus, no God - at
least as defined.
This has several holes. First, what I call the "thermodynamic" argument, is that evil does not actually exist.
Rather, just as there is no "thing" as cold, but there is heat
energy, and "cold" is just a relative lack of heat, then good
is what actually exists, and evil is a relative lack of "goodness" (whatever that means). This still doesn't help, since
the "goodness" isn't defined, and I could use the same case
to suggest good doesn't exist, and justify a supreme evil god,
instead (like that would be worshipped!). Second, the definition of God can be adjusted, so that God isn't truly
omnipotent, but is rather, omnipotent "enough" to do anything we can imagine, and certainly for the creation, but
not truly omnipotent.
So, as Freud declared, all "proof' for or against the existence of God falters due to the amorphous definitions used,
and the logical cases are rendered moot - besides, if a true
proof had been given, either way, we wouldn't be having
this discussion. The believers believe in spite of the lack of
proof. However, accepting this premise, that of an all-powerful, loving omniparent with only our best interests in
mind (very comforting), whatever follows is reasonable.

Paul Kondon is past-president

of the Atheist Society at


Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
"Reasoning with the Unreasonable" is a speech given by
him at the Regional Atheists Meet held in Detroit on 3
November 2001.
Parsippany, New Jersey

Thus, the believer considers himself reasonable and is often


insulted by accusations to the contrary. And, within the context of the religious belief in question, they are quite reasonable. Even if we don't agree with the motivation, we
can't contest the results, such as charity, community, hope,
and personal responsibility. It is only the extreme cases,
where their "reasons" for such things such as murdering
abortion doctors, prohibiting non-traditional relationships,
and championing violence against those who worship differently, where we might oppose the actions, in part or in
whole, because their "reasons" are subjective or otherwise
insufficient.
Addressing the first case next, trying to be understood
by those whose belief systems are rooted in religion, fanatic
or not, is a persistent problem, since they often don't understand that there are problems with what they believe, and
certainly don't want to discuss why they should change a
"perfectly good" understanding of the world for what is,
ostensibly, a more somber, if more consistent and useful,
perspective. Most attempts to reason with them are thus
futile.
My immediate family and I are all Atheists, and we
enjoy knocking these issues around and having really good
discussions. Also, we enjoy discussing these things with
those friends and other relatives who really enjoy this, as
well. My brother has a couple of friends who really challenge him. On one occasion, he and I were discussing some
issues of social economics, he stating that one needs to do
what one must, and I stating that you still need to be true
to yourself, and preserve some ideals. Anyway, we went
back and forth for about twenty minutes, and then we came
to an agreement of sorts. After a few minutes of silence, he
looks over at me and asks, "What did you do that for?"
"What?" I reply. "Get me to agree with you," he says. "I was
just getting into this argument, and now it's all over!" This
example is typical of skeptics, intellectuals, and in particular, Atheists like ourselves. We enjoy the discussions, locking horns with others and trying to "win" an argument. We
love picking a topic to pieces, and seeing what we can learn.
We thrive on overcoming obstacles with our wits, and enjoy
sharpening our arguments by sparring with each other.
But, this is us, and not everyone can appreciate this
kind of mental abuse. Those with religious beliefs much
prefer others to do their thinking for them, and, so long as
it works, they don't question, and don't like to question.
Much as we would like to bombard them with concise arguments and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, simply
lecturing them on logic and science will fall on deaf ears.
This is because they either already consider themselves to
be reasonable, or they don't need to reason their way to
understanding,
because what they know is divinely

Winter 2001-2002

Page 49

inspired, and comes straight from God's love for them. No


methodology is needed to discover truth, so you can't make
it plain why they aren't doing it right.
Another error common to skeptics and Atheists in
dealing with the believer is speaking to them condescendingly, either as a drill instructor with an errant recruit,
bludgeoning them with accusations of stupidity, or as an
impatient parent trying to "cure" a child's immaturity.
(''You must be an idiot to believe that" or "Grow up; Santa
Claus and the Easter Bunny aren't real, and neither is
God.") With a bit more tact, these things can be conveyed,
but insulting their intelligence isn't going to win any converts, and more likely will make more enemies. As most of
the respectable and intelligent members of society do
believe in some kind of supreme being, they also already
consider themselves reasonable people, but within the confines of their religious beliefs. To alienate them is to lose
the allies and influence that we seek in the majority to
have our position understood,and,
more importantly,
accepted as a viable intellectual system.
Now, when dealing with the more extreme elements, we
are at another disadvantage. They don't fight fair. We
acknowledge the limits of our ability to understand the
universe, and we abide by the principles of skepticism and
scientific method to gain 'real' knowledge of the world, and accept that what
we know is under continual revision. As
such, we need to avoid gross generalizations and unsupported
claims, and
accept that some ideas are mere conjecture or hypothetical situations which
don't establish anything. The worst
attack that the faithful have is to challenge us to disprove the existence of
gods, whereas our position is that the
burden of proof should be upon them to
prove that existence, instead. Claiming
divine inspiration, they can make all
manner of outrageous and unsubstantiated claims about what they believe,
since they don't need proof themselves,
and, again, won't listen to us unless we
have incontrovertible evidence the other
way. It is upon us to turn over every rock
in the universe, show that their god isn't
under any of them, and then conclude
"Nope. No God." They abuse scientific
method, stating that such things as the
Big Bang and evolution are untestable
hypotheses, without witness or direct
evidence, and irreproducible, and thus
deserve no respect.
So, how are we supposed to get
through to them? Well, for one, avoid'
accusatory language. Saying things like
"How can you think that way?" or "you
are mistaken" or "Why do you believe
something so silly?" only serve to provoke a defensive response, even if they
would otherwise disagree with the position. No one likes to admit an error, so,
Page 50

even if exposed, they will find reasons and excuses for their
belief, and defend it. What needs to be done is to divorce
the believer from the belief Refer to third-person examples,
or hypothetical situations, to allow the individual to
address the issue without feeling pressured to be "right" or
"wrong." If you want someone to act intelligently, treat
them as though they are intelligent and capable of making
reasonable judgments and logical conclusions.
When I began my graduate work in mathematics, I
became friends with a Ph.D. candidate in the math department. He was very intelligent, as one might expect from a
math Ph.D., was a great chess player, and fan of Star Trek.
We had many interesting discussions on a variety of topics.
However, I was much surprised at the time that he was a
fundamentalist
Christian. Now, I understand how this
seeming paradox can be. Mathematics at the level of our
study is well past simple number-crunching, and delves
into the abstract ideas behind the numbers. It is also totally the realm of logical proofs and critical reasoning. But,
this is actually quite consistent with a belief in a god, since
that is the ultimate abstraction. Many of the great minds
of the past, and especially mathematicians,
including
Descartes and Newton, were also theologians, who believed
that through the study of mathematics they were "reading

Winter 2001-2002

American Atheist

the mind of God." Plato proposed that mathematics is the


language of God, being the description of perfect ideas. So,
in ivory-tower reasoning, God is quite consistent, and presents no challenge to what they understand of the universe.
Of course, at the level of mathematics we studied, there
was little direct application of it, and, that, too, is comparable to God, especially the Biblical version, which is quite
out of touch with the modern scientific world.
During our weekly to bi-weekly lunches, we would also
spend a great deal of time discussing religion and morality,
and I found him quite challenging. Every time I believed
myself to be cleverly crafting a line of reasoning that would
force him to admit that God might not exist, he would challenge the facts, theories or assumptions that were the basis
of my case, and blunt my argument right there. I discovered time and again that there are many assumptions
upon which all science is based, and I had to spend as much
time defending what I understood about the world as trying to attack his. He was no dummy, very bright, very well
read, and yet still a fervent believer in his god and the
'truth' of the Bible.
Thus, we must avoid the trap of arrogance and being
as unreasonable as we say they are. Many teachers and scientists have become so entrenched in their way of thinking
that they treat it as dogmatically as any religion, and so
now there are even accusations that science is a religion.
These are from those who confuse a belief system with a
religion, and often Atheism is tagged with being a religion,
as well. At every turn we must play by our own rules, so
that we don't undermine the method we want them to use,
and yet we must also deal with their claims without proof.
Thus, the effort comes not in some masterstroke of logical
legerdemain, felling their god in one mighty blow, but
rather a slow, but persistent, erosion of the certainty with
which they live, and from which they overcome all challenges to their belief. We believe what we do from one of
two likely sources: a natural skepticism which doesn't
accept anything prima facie, or some great challenge to
what we thought we knew, some theodicy dilemma from
which religion and faith were cast off in favor of self-discovery and critical inquiry. These things can't be taught,
but we can teach an alternative to the way of religion and
fear.
Those who do "keep the faith" often do it for two seemingly contradictory reasons, but, historically, they are quite
consistent. On the one hand, in times of plenty, one might
think the deity of the prevailing religion is pleased, and the
success is a blessing for the devoted worshippers. In this.
case, one does not "rock the boat", for fear of displeasing the
supernatural agent, and losing what they enjoy. Why question happiness? Just enjoy it, and do what seems to work to
encourage it. A similar cause for belief is what is known as
Pascal's wager (yes, another mathematician). In this case,
you either believe, or disbelieve. The cases for each are the
same, either the god in question does exist, or he doesn't. If
you believe, and are correct, you get rewarded (salvation).
If he doesn't, you were wrong, nothing bad happens, since
death is just your end, and there is no eternal suffering.
Either way, no really bad outcome. If you don't believe,
again there are two possibilities. If there is no god, again,
nothing lost. However, if there is, and you snub him, then
Parsippany, New Jersey

you are in trouble (damnation). So, given a choice, the


choice to believe has no negative outcomes, unlike the
choice to disbelieve. However, this is a bad use of mathematics, since it attempts to assign some kind of probabilities to the outcomes, and, in any event, it is a poor motive
for belief, since it is selfishly motivated, which is a false
faith according to Christian fundamentalism.
On the other hand, in times of desperation and deprivation, a deity is often sought as the only hope of the powerless to effect change. This is especially true of the
Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). All
were born in the poorest region of the world (prior to the
discovery of petroleum and the invention of the machines
that need it). As Ramses was to have said, Judaism was
the "religion of the slaves," as was Christianity for the
African slaves more recently (and their descendants,
today).
I was brushing up on my Machiavelli lately and I came
across an interesting passage that said things in a way
that I understood, but didn't really see clearly before. In
the last chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli is kissing up to
de Medici, and is praising him as the savior of Italy, capable of uniting it where all of the princes before him have
failed, for all of the reasons outlined in that book. There is
a particular passage which struck me however: "The justice of the cause is conspicuous; for that war is just which
is necessary, and those arms are sacred from which we
derive our only hope." Those arms, those people, those
ideas, are sacred, from which we derive our only hope. This
is why the believer believes in spite of all evidence to the
contrary. They often have no hope otherwise. To the powerless, this is all that they do have. And, in opposition to a
strong secular power, appealing to a god is all that they can
do. If their belief is the last and only source of hope for a
better future, it becomes sacred, and anyone faithful to it
will cling to it, because they fear there is no alternative. To
try to simply sweep it away is to undermine their whole
concept of existence, and self-worth. It cannot be done
quickly, and certainly cannot be done callously.
Something I've heard time and again, and even
thought myself in the past, is that Atheists and skeptics
don't "believe" anything. We either know, or we don't, and
make no claims from what is uncertain. From this we challenge the intelligence and reasonability of the religious as
mere opinion and wishful thinking. However, this is a common misunderstanding by us, as well. Facts are the knowledge gained from observation, or logical conclusions from
other facts. Hypothesis is conjecture from fact. Theory is
hypothesis supported by further factual investigation, and
laws are theory with no conceivable test to the contrary.
However, all of this, the underpinnings
of scientific
method, also makes a great assumption: that we are capable of understanding anything at all, and that our faculties
are capable of giving us the necessary information to reach
this understanding.
This is a pretty big assumption, a
belief, which has withstood a number of philosophical challenges in the last couple of centuries. What we observe may
be incomplete, or illusory, but we can still deduce useful
knowledge from it, by comparing a number of differing perspectives, in order to build a more complete understanding. Another tenet of science is that what we know must be
subject to cross-examination, or we can never improve

Winter 2001-2002

Page 51

[upon what we know. We learn in order to use past events


to predict the future, but, there is nothing certain about
that future, and so what we think we know must always
be open to challenge and revision as each new experience
tests what we know. We must concede that we could be as
wrong about the universe as the geocentrists appeared to
be wrong about the universe. This is both our strength and
our weakness.
So, what can we take from here? First, be tolerant of
those who do have belief systems other than your own.
Remember, all of civilization is built upon a belief that a
greater purpose is served by our cooperation, and, almost
exclusively, this purpose was that of the gods. Granted,
getting Atheists to cooperate is akin to herding cats, but
we cannot live totally alone in the modern world. We don't
have an Atheist country to which we can move, so we are
stuck where we are. We can't be heard if they don't listen
to us, and they won't listen if we won't listen. Religions do
have merit in guiding morals and ethics, and providing a
means for seeking truth, though not in determining truth.
Give credit where credit is due, and don't use the obvious
and embarrassing cases of irrational extremism to try to
humiliate the believer and his beliefs. Everyone makes
mistakes. Few have the security and strength to endure
withering attacks, accept their error, and make sweeping
changes in their lives. A great criticism of non-religious
beliefs is their inability to provide groundwork for morals
and ethics to teach new generations, and there is merit to
this. If we can't agree on how to behave, how can we
inspire them to permit us a voice in determining how they
should?
It is our responsibility, then, to be educators, not
antagonists. If we just rage against perceived stupidity,
and criticize without constructive alternative, we only
appear as intolerant as we claim them to be, and we will
never convince them to guard against their own intolerance. We may as well believe in an afterlife, then, since
this one will be lost.

IN MEMORIAM
Atheists in Alabama and American Atheists across
the country sadly mourn the loss of Roverta Sullivan
Ellis, who died on Thursday, October 18, 2001. As a final
act of love, her body was been donated to the UAB
Anatomical Donor Program. A memorial service was held
on Sunday, October 28, at 3:00 p.m. at the Unitarian
Universalist Church in Huntsville. Ro was always active
in the community and was an avid contributor of editorialletters to the editor of The Huntsville Times on behalf
of Atheism and rationality
in general. A long-time
American Atheist activist, Ro sparred frequently in the
editorial section with religionists.
She volunteered
as
historian
for Habitat
for Humanity,
worked at the
Friends of the Library bookstore, organized bridge tournaments for charity, and wrote plays. Her passionate

Davis Interview from page 25


AA: Would you extend this type of argument to differences
between men and women?
DAVIS: Absolutely! Until we look at those differences ...
Take that guy (Ray) Comfort [an evangelist who took part
in a debate at the American Atheists convention], did he
really say - he did really say! - that if I looked at a woman
with lust in my heart, even if I didn't do anything about it,
I'd be damned for eternity, or I've committed adultery. I'm
hard-wired for it!
AA: Alright, you're hard-wired for it. But doesn't that
mean that if, say, you're the job administrator and you
have women working for you in subordinate positions, you
can turn that wiring off?
DAVIS: No, I can't turn it om I can turn what I do about
it off, I can not act upon it, but if a woman comes in to my
office with a short skirt and tight sweater, and they look
terrific, I can't stop myself from having a certain reaction.
But I don't have to do something about it! I could even say,
"You look really nice today," if I were really daring!
(laughs).
AA: So we should continue to explore what some consider
to be taboo areas of evolutionary biology having to do with
things like race or sexuality?
DAVIS: To put it another way, so long as we consider that
men and women are the 'same creature,' and that genetic
hard-wiring makes no difference, we will not understand
the changes that occur or the relationships between the
genders, and probably other groups too.

FURTHER READING from page 45


What Happens When you Die: From Your Last Breath To The
First Spadeful: Robert T. Hatch, Citadel Press, 1995.
R.I.P. The Complete Book of Death and Dying: Constance
Jones, Harper Collins, 1997.
Design For Dying: Timothy Leary with R.U. Sirius, HarperCollins, 1997.
The American Way of Death Revisited: Jessica Mitford,
Knopf, 1998.
The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the
End of Life: Marilyn Webb, Bantam, NY 1997.
FAMSA- Funeral Consumers Alliance, P.O. Box 10,
Hinesburg, VT 05461
http://vbiweb.champlain.edulfamsalindex.htm
The Hemlock Society, P.O. Box 101810, Denver, CO 802501810 http://www.hemlock.org
ERGO - Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization,
24829 Norris Lane, Junction City, OR 97448-9559
http://www.finalexit.org

spirit will always be with us, and her work lives on.

Page 52

Winter 2001-2002

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