A Quote From Voltaire

I was just over at the “Positive Atheism” site, and I came across this quote from Voltaire, which appeared in a letter to an interlocutor following the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake, which killed thirty thousand people, with another seventy thousand lives snuffed out in the ensuing Tsunami:

“My dear sir, nature is very cruel. One would find it hard to imagine how the laws of movement cause such frightful disasters in the best of possible worlds. A hundred thousand ants, our fellows, crushed all at once in our ant-hill, and half of them perishing, no doubt in unspeakable agony, beneath the wreckage from which they cannot be drawn. Families ruined all over Europe, the fortune of a hundred businessmen, your compatriots, swallowed up in the ruins of Lisbon. What a wretched gamble is the game of human life! What will the preachers say, especially if the palace of the Inquisition is still standing? I flatter myself that at least the reverend father inquisitors have been crushed like others. That ought to teach men not to persecute each other, for while a few holy scoundrels burn a few fanatics, the earth swallows up one and all.”

Voltaire went on to write the moving poem “On the Disaster at Lisbon,” as well as his magnum opus, the novel Candide.


On Mencken

As Flying Spaghetti Monster Indicated, there is a sort of immortality associated with at least some writers, thinkers, artists, and others. FSM was referring to Christopher Hitchens, but if there was an American (Hitch was born a Brit but became a US citizen) that surpassed Hitchens in acerbic wit or in his relentless flaying of religion, it was HL Mencken.  At the book sale that served as a fundraiser for the Bovey library, I purchased a biography of Mencken by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers.  I am just a short way into it, but it promises to be rewarding reading.  At any rate, I thought it would be worthwhile to post a dedication by William Manchester, who knew Mencken and died himself in 2004.  So here it is:

“Fifty years ago I spent my mornings reading to an old man who suffered, as I now suffer, from a series of strokes.  He was a writer.  He was H.L. Mencken.  I have never known a kinder man.  But when he unsheathed his typewriter and sharpened its keys, his prose was anything but kind.  It was rollicking and it was ferocious.  Witty, intellectual polemicists are a vanishing breed today.  Their role has been usurped by television boobs whose IQs measure just below their body temperatures.  Some journalism schools even warn their students to shun words that may hurt.  But sometimes words should hurt.  That is why they are in the language. When terrorists slaughter innocents, when corporation executives betray the trust of their shareholders, when lewd priests betray the trust of little children, it is time to mobilize the language and send it into battle.

When Mencken died in January 1956, he was cremated.  That was a mistake.  He should have been “rolled in malleable gold and polished to blind the cosmos.”  I still miss him.  America misses him more.”


In an age in which the likes of Donald Trump can be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, it is time for us all to sharpen our words.

Steven Pinker – Our monthly meeting on April 28, 2015

Steven PInker’s well regarded book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is considered an excellent read, but at 800 pages, clearly not a quick one. Fortunately for us, Steven is not only an excellent writer, but also an excellent speaker. In the video below he quickly gives us an overview of the massive book, hitting all the high spots and providing an easy to follow description of where his research led him and where things may continue to head. Here is his presentation at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in March in Minneapolis.

Pinker describes this as the most peaceful age in human history and provides a broad array of evidence in support of this claim. He ends with a description of the primary factors behind the dramatic decline in violence across the planet. In short, they include: empathy, self-control, the “moral sense,” and reason. Note the absence of religion. While religion is discussed in some detail in his book, getting to key points and arguments, Pinker clearly feels that he has no need for the “god hypothesis”.

What Next?

So, you are an atheist.  You have let go of god, or perhaps never believed in the first place.  So what next?  You still have a life to live — how should you live it?  What is important and what is not?

This is known in philosophy as “the problem of conduct.”  What is the good life?  Is there only one type of “good life?” Is it available to anyone, or just a select few?

These questions were probably best addressed by philosophers of the Hellenistic Age (definition available on Wikipedia).  How to live a good life was the major unifying topic among Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, and others.

English author and activist Alexis de Botton has come under fire from other atheists due to his endorsement of “atheist churches” and the like, but he is well versed in philosophy, especially the problem of conduct.  At our upcoming monthly meeting, Ken tells me (and sorry if I have stolen any of your thunder, Ken) that we will be viewing a video by de Botton regarding Epicurus, the Philosopher of Pleasure.  This moniker has gotten Epicurus a bad name; but before you judge, come and see exactly what it is that Epicurus meant by pleasure, and see if you agree with his prescription (or some of it anyway) for a good life.

French Wars of Religion

At a community college, one has to wear many hats.  I have been teaching philosophy for many years, but since I have a Master’s degree in European History, I am now called upon to teach that subject as well.  It should not be that way, but until our higher education system is adequately funded, that is how it will remain.  In any case, in doing my “prep” work, I am reminded of how bloody the wars of religion were in 16th-17th century Europe.  Since I am prepping for a unit on French history, I will just mention at present that it is estimated between 2 and 4 million men, women, and children died in the struggle between French Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots.

Fire and Straw

In preparing to teach European History in the fall I have been doing some reading about the Reformation era.  I found interesting Luther’s comments regarding the marriage of priests, which of course was and is prohibited by the Catholic Church.  His remarks are sexist and reflect a less enlightened time than our own.  He said that priests need housekeepers, and putting men and women together and expecting nothing to happen was like applying a spark to straw and expecting no conflagration.  Despite the sexism, it is hard not to think about the many sex scandals associated with the Catholic Church today.  Luther showed a greater understanding of human nature than the current Roman Church.  The vast majority of humans are driven to copulate, and priestly vestments do nothing to change that.  Expecting priests as a class to remain celibate is like expecting straw to remain impervious to fire.

Religion-Induced Blindness

I had an interesting conversation today with an acquaintance of mine.  This man is a voracious reader of history, especially regarding the American Civil War. He has a quick, sharp mind, and is very bright.  But he is also an evangelical Christian, and is blinded by dogma.

We were discussing books we have read on the Civil War, slavery, and related historical topics, when he asked rhetorically how Southerners could consider themselves Christians while supporting slavery.  I pointed out to him that the churches, like all other American institutions, were split on the issue, and that Southern theologians were able to cite plenty of biblical passages supportive of slavery.  I said something to the effect that both sides “cherry-picked,” and he replied that one would have to cherry-pick to think the bible could support slavery.  So this bright man with an active mind and an impressive degree of historical curiosity has never analyzed his own religion and its history.  Astounding.

You Must be Born Again — Really?

Many conservative Christians talk about being “born again,” and even claim that no one who has not been born again will burn eternally in hell.  Typically, in my experience at least, Christians claiming to be born again believe they have had some sort of religious experience, in which their sins were forgiven and Jesus somehow “touched” them directly.

Well, it turns out there is a problem.  The conversation in which Jesus stated the necessity of being born again never happened?  How do we know this?  Here is a quote from page 90 of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist:

“In John 3 comes the well-known story of Jesus’s conversation with the rabbi Nicodemus.  Jesus is in Jerusalem, and Nicodemus comes up to him and tells him that he knows he is a teacher from God.  Jesus tells him: “Unless you are born anothen you will not be able to enter the kingdom of God.”  I have left the key word here in Greek.  Anothen has two meanings.  It can mean “a second time,” and it can mean “from above.” And so this is the passage in which Jesus instructs his follower that he has to be “born again.”  At least that’s how Nicodemus understands the word because he is shocked and asks how he can possibly crawl back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time.  But in fact Jesus does not mean “a second time”; he means “from above.”  This is what the word anothen means in the other instances it is used in John’s Gospel, and it is what Jesus means by it here, as he then corrects Nicodemus and launches into a lengthy explanation that a person needs to be born from the Spirit who comes from above (the upper realm) if he wants to enter into the kingdom of God.

“This is a coversation, in other words, that is rooted in the double meaning of key word anothen, which Nicodemus understands in one way but Jesus means in another.  Without that double entendre, the coversation does not flow and does not quite make sense.  But here’s the key point.  Even though the Greek word anothen has this double meaning, the double meaning cannot be replicated in Aramaic [the language in which Jesus and Nicodemus, if they ever actually met, would have been speaking — Lucretius].  The Aramaic word for “from above” does not mean “a second time,” and the word for “a second time” does not mean “from above.”  In other words, this conversation could not have been carried out in Aramaic.  But Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke — and the language he certainly would have been speaking in Jerusalem with a leading Jewish rabbi…in other words, the conversation could not have happened as it is reported.

Ergo, Jesus never said “you must be born again.”  The phrase was made up by the Greek-speaking author of the Gospel of John, who never met Jesus.

Mark Twain Quote

Though it is not often mentioned in schools, the famous autor Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was an atheist and a socialist. Here is a quote on God from one of his writings:
…a God who could make good children as easily a bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave is angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell–mouths mercy, and invented hell–mouths Golden Rules and foregiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor abused slave to worship him!