A Secular Scientist’s Argument against the New Atheists

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David Berlinski and Christopher Hitchens

Moderator: Dr. Berlisnki, you’re not a Christian, and indeed, you’re not religious as I understand it. Why do you argue for a Judeo-Christian influence in society?

David Berlisnki: I presume you are not asking me in the hopes of a personal declaration. And I won’t say that this secular Jew has a remarkable degree of authority when it comes to these moral events: after all, I have lived my own life under the impress of having a good time, all the time. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to hear these words from someone such as myself, because at least you are hearing them from someone with no conceivable bias in their favor.

In its largest aspect, Western science is of course an outgrowth of Judeo-Christian tradition, especially to the extent, perhaps only to the extent, that it is committed to the principle that the manifest universe contains a latent structure that can be discovered by the intellect of man. I think this is true. I don’t think this is very far from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ declaration that, ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ […]

You know, Stephen Hawking just published a book, one explaining, again, how everything began — why it’s there, why we shouldn’t worry about God, et cetera. And to paraphrase the claim that he now makes: having given up on “A” through “L”, he now champions something called “M-theory” to explain how the universe popped into existence. I respect Hawking as a reputable physicist. But I can tell you this: What is lamentably lacking in every one of these discussions is that coruscating spirit of skepticism which a Christopher Hitchens or a Richard Dawkins would bring to religious claims, and then lapses absurdly when it comes to naturalistic and scientific claims about the cosmos.

Surely, we should have the sophistication to wonder at any asseveration of the form that the universe just blasted itself into existence following the laws of M-theory — a theory no one can understand, whose mathematical formulism hasn’t been completed, which has never once been tested in any laboratory on the face of the earth…

Finally, the fact that the earth, our home, is a small part of the physical universe does not mean it is not the center of the universe. That is a non sequitur. After all, no one would argue, least of all Mr. Hitchens, that the doctrine that home is where the heart lies is rendered false by distance. We should be very careful about making these claims. I agree that the universe is very big; there are lots of galaxies and amazing things. And there is certainly some biological continuity between humans and the animals that came before us. But as for the central religious claim that this particular place is blessed and important, that’s different. No doctrine about physical size rebuts it…

And as to why should a secular Jew open his mouth to questions pertaining to the Christian religion? It’s a big tent. I’m presuming I would be welcomed.

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An excerpt from Berlinski’s 2010 debate with Christopher Hitchens. Berlinski’s erudition reaches almost comical heights in this debate, which is, in my opinion, one of the more compelling Hitch ever did. I like the whole thing, but you can watch the pulled section below.

Continue onward:

Mark Steyn: A Joke Is a Small Thing, but It’s Our Societal Glue

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12 Dead In French Magazine Shooting

“You know, a cartoon is a small thing. It’s not The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

It’s not a big work. People get a pencil, they do a little sketch, and it’s in the paper the next day, and they forget about it. It’s a funny thing. It makes you laugh.

And the joke is an important signifier of society. A joke is a small thing, but it’s part of the societal glue. It’s what holds us together. Jokes are about recognition. When you tell a joke, people understand the social norms that are being mocked in it…

Now we live in a world though, where they don’t just end your career. These people are so serious about jokes — cartoons, gags — that they want to kill you for it.

And the correct attitude of all those people who intervened, all the politicians who spoke up and said ‘I deplore the offense that was given by this cartoon’ is completely wrong.

You should just say, ‘Look, we’re in a free society and we don’t regulate jokes here.’ […]

My friend Ezra Levant once observed that one day the Danish cartoon crisis would be seen as a more critical event than the attacks of September 11th.

He was wrong, obviously, in terms of the comparative death tolls, but he was absolutely right in what each revealed about the state of Western civilization in the 21st century.

In the long run, the ostensibly trivial matter of some not-terribly-good drawings in an obscure newspaper… will prove to be a more important signifier of the collapse of Western civilization than a direct, violent assault on the citadels of American power in Washington and New York.

Because if you provoke on the scale of 9/11, even Western civilization in its present decayed state will feel obliged to respond.

So yes, if they blow up St. Peters, if they blow up the Eiffel Tower, then yes, they’ll get a response.

But the cartoon crisis confirmed to our enemies that at heart we don’t really believe in ourselves anymore. That we won’t defend our core liberties, and that you can steal them from us one little bit at a time.”

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Pulled from the inimitable Mark Steyn’s recent speech in Copenhagen to mark the decade anniversary of the Danish cartoon crisis. As a wise man recently noted, “It used to be that they came for the Jews first. Now it’s the cartoonists. Then the Jews.” Quite surreal, that.

I highly encourage you to check out Steyn’s speech below (and buy Charb’s newly minted, posthumously published book). Steyn is a truly first rate orator. If the pulled text gives you the sense that this is another dour, Doomsday-Is-Here rant about Western Civilization’s imminent collapse, then it’s giving off the wrong impression. Steyn is utterly hilarious, astonishingly articulate, and always fun to listen to. I think he’s the best raconteur and pure talker out there since Hitchens passed. For a sample, you can start here. Also, you can keep up with his daily output of writing — mostly on this topic, though also about his jazz cat album — at his website, steynonline.com.

Continue on:

Speaking Freely when the Guns Go Off

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[Play the brief clip above]

“This is what it’s like for peaceful people to gather in a cafe and attempt to have a conversation about our basic freedoms in an open society.

You have to ask yourself: what kind of a world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you want your kids to live in?

This is the world you’re living in now. And as someone who is spending a fair amount of time dealing with these issues, I can tell you that I no longer feel safe doing so… And this is not just me. I’m talking about those people in Copenhagen. I’m talking about those people in open societies everywhere, who have to deal with this growing menace of Islamic jihadism.

Unless we can speak honestly about this, unless we can resist the theocratic demands being placed on us, we will lose our way of life. In fact, we have already lost it in many respects.

We have to reclaim our freedom of speech. So if you care about living in an open society that doesn’t more and more resemble Jerusalem or Beirut, if you care about free speech, real freedom of speech, not just its political guarantee — the reality of being able to speak about what you need to speak about in public, without being murdered by some maniac or without having to spend the rest of your life being hunted by a jihadist mob…

If you care about my work, or the work of other secularists, or of other Muslim reformers like Maajid Nawaz or Ayaan Hirsi Ali; if you care about our ability to notice and criticize and correct for bad ideas, then you have to condemn [the dishonesty of the regressive left]. Please push back against this. Please lose your patience at shocking displays of intellectual dishonesty used to excuse it. Your response to this really matters.”

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Sam Harris’s reflections on the shooting at the Krudttoenden cultural center in Copenhagen last February, in which 40 people had assembled to discuss the state of free expression in post-Hebdo Europe.

The audio clip records the horrific seconds when a gunman burst through the door, letting off a hail of bullets that would kill one and injure several others. The woman’s voice you hear in the opening is that of Inna Shevchenko, the Ukrainian feminist activist, who had just taken the stage and was discussing the excuses many Westerners make on behalf of those who kill because of cartoons.

Today is the one year anniversary of the Hebdo massacre, and Saturday will be the anniversary of the Hypercacher Kosher supermarket shooting (but who remembers that?). I’ve just ordered the posthumously published book — completed three days before the attacks — by Charb, with a forward from Adam Gopnik, Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression.

Go on:

Freedom of Speech by Norman Rockwell

“Innocence” by Patrick Kavanaugh

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Patrick Kavanaugh

They laughed at one I loved —
The triangular hill that hung
Under the Big Forth. They said
That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges
Of the little farm and did not know the world.
But I knew that love’s doorway to life
Is the same doorway everywhere.

Ashamed of what I loved
I flung her from me and called her a ditch
Although she was smiling at me with violets.

But now I am back in her briary arms
The dew of an Indian Summer morning lies
On bleached potato-stalks—
What age am I?

I do not know what age I am,
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.

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“Innocence” by Patrick Kavanagh, which you’ll find in his Selected Poems.

If you ever hoof it to the village of Inniskeen in County Monaghan, Ireland, you’ll find Patrick Kavanagh’s grave among the pale wooden crosses in the village cemetery. According to pilgrims who’ve made the trek, some of the locals will still reminisce about the native son (Kavanagh died in Dublin in 1967). As one resident told a recent visitor: “I knew Paddy. His mother couldn’t read and his father was a cobbler. Paddy was not a good farmer… he paid no heed to his fields.”

Not surprisingly. His mind was on — or perhaps already in — the city. Like many poets of the day, from Yeats to Wilde to Goldsmith, Kavanagh migrated to Dublin, walking the fifty-mile journey for the first time in 1931, at the age of twenty-seven. He would be internationally known within the decade, largely due to his poems about common life “On Raglan Road” and “The Great Hunger”.

It’s clear he scorned the grubby, provincial life of his boyhood, with its emotional and material deprivation, its spiritual nullity. In his poem “Stony Grey Soil”, he levels a series of accusations against the stubborn soil of Monaghan: “the laugh from my love you thieved”, “you fed me on swinish food”, “you flung a ditch on my vision”. (There’s that “ditch” accusation he’s looking to rescind in “Innocence”.)

I’ll let Christian Wiman explain the rest of the poem and its relation to spiritual innocence, in his recent lecture “When You Consider the Radiance: Poetry for Preachers and Prophets”. It’s where I first heard of the poem, and I recommend watching the whole thing. Wiman’s reading of “Innocence” is set to start below.

Read on:

For the Time Being

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W.H. AudenAlone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss,

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

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Pulled from W.H. Auden’s 1942 poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”. You’ll find it in his Collected Poems.

I hope all of you have had wonderful Christmases and holidays.

Three others I read this time of year:

Why Do Southerners Like Football So Much?

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Stuart Stevens

Mark Halperin: Why is football such a big deal in the South?

Stuart Stevens: It’s actually a profound question. In part it’s because the South had no professional teams for many years, and that had an impact on the “Friday Night Lights” atmosphere that you had. I think that for a long time, when the South wasn’t very good at much, it was good at football – so there was an inverse pride in football which people clung to. I also think that there is something about the violence of football that appeals to southerners in a special way.

And the way in which football has changed the culture of the South, particularly the racial elements of the South… I find fascinating. It’s parallel with rugby in South Africa. It really was the first time, for many southerners, that blacks and whites cheered for each other, and meant it, and that’s been a very powerful force.

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From Stevens’s interview with Halperin on With All Due Respect in September.

Stevens, who was the top strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, took leave from work the year after the failed run. In this time, he and his 95-year-old dad (pictured above) committed to revive their long dormant family tradition and attend every Ole Miss football game that season. You can read about their experiences and Stevens’s reflections on family, legacy, and the South in his new book The Last Season: A Father, a Son, and a Lifetime of College Football (I haven’t read the book, but you can see a short introduction below).

There’s more:

How Jesus Talked

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The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggo_(1599-1600)

“Biblical Hebrew developed as a desert language, and it exhibits the economy of desert people. The very opposite of Victorian English, which never uses fewer words if it can use more, Hebrew will not use three words if two will do. It will not use two words if one will do. If it can get away with silence instead of words, it will do so — and much of the meaning of the Hebrew Bible is to be found in its silences. This is because in the desert every movement is dehydrating; and desert people learn to think before they move and think before they speak. They are elegant conservers of energy.

When Amos, the great prophet of the Northern Kingdom, tries to move the people to abandon their trivial pursuit of economic status and to take account of the poor, he says most beautifully:

Ve-yigal ka-maim mishpat, ve-tsedaka k’nachal eytahn,

which I would translate, ‘Let your justice flow like water, and your compassion like a never-failing stream.’ The English takes twenty syllables, the Hebrew only fifteen — and this is Hebrew at its most expansive…

If the misplaced reverence of translators can make the people of the Bible sound as they never did in life, no one brings on attacks of reverence more often than Jesus, who was actually humorous, affectionate, and down-to-earth, who spoke to his friends and followers in a clear and bracing manner, was often blunt, sometimes vulgar, and always arresting. Never did he employ the dreary, self-righteous, even priggish sound that some of his admirers would wish for him. Despite the popularity of the King James Version, Jesus was not a 17th-century Englishman…

In Mark’s Gospel, the most primitive of the four gospels, the first words that Jesus speaks are: ‘The Time has come. The Kingdom of God draws near…’ The next word is almost always translated as ‘repent’ or ‘convert’ — which makes Jesus sound like a sidewalk freak with a placard in his hands. But the word Mark uses is metanoiete, which means literally in Greek ‘change your minds.’ For the Greeks, the mind was considerably more than it is for us. It was the core of the person, the center of his being. The word we would use is ‘heart.’ So… I have translated the Greek as ‘Open your hearts’ — a far cry from ‘repent!'”

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Excerpted from Thomas Cahill’s speech “Close Encounters with the People of the Past”.

Cahill, who has written some of the most enjoyable and broadly accessible popular history out there, has published a few books that hover around the ancient Greeks and early Christian church. I recommend starting with Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus.

The image: a section of Caravaggio’s 1599 masterpiece The Calling of Saint Matthew.

Related reading:

How Thomas Friedman Gets China Wrong

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Peter Robinson: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes that,

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages… It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power.

What do you make of this “Beijing Consensus,” this view that maybe they are better suited for the future than our form of government.

Victor Davis Hanson: If you gave me ten minutes and the internet, I could give you an almost verbatim quote from what left-wing people said about Mussolini in the twenties, and what right-wing people like Charles Lindbergh said about Germany in the thirties. They make the trains run on time…

But China has a rendezvous with radical pollution problems and clean up; demographic problems, a shrinking population that will grow old before it grows rich; one male per family, imbalance between the sexes. Somehow their brilliant foreign policy cooked up a nuclear Pakistan, a nuclear North Korea, a nuclear Russia, a soon-to-be nuclear Iran, and maybe, in the future, a nuclear Taiwan and Japan — all right on their border.

So I don’t get this fascination that, just because you fly into the Shanghai airport and everything looks great in a way that Kennedy doesn’t, suddenly they’re the avatars of the future.

What Thomas Friedman would need to do is get on a bicycle, cross rural China, then compare that with biking across rural Nebraska to see which society is more resilient and stable.

Victor Davis Hanson

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A counterpoint made by VDH in his interview with the Hoover Institute’s Peter Robinson several years ago. To read more, you can take a look at Hanson’s much praised study of nine of history’s most pivotal battles, Carnage and Culture.

Or you can read on:

Two Things Fill the Mind with Awe

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Immanuel Kant

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. I have not to search for them and conjecture them as though they were veiled in darkness or were in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them directly with the consciousness of my existence. The former begins from the place I occupy in the external world of sense, and enlarges my connection therein to an unbounded extent with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into limitless times of their periodic motion, its beginning and continuance.

The second begins from my invisible self, my personality, and exhibits me in a world which has true infinity, but which is traceable only by the understanding, and with which I discern that I am not in a merely contingent but in a universal and necessary connection, as I am also thereby with all those visible worlds. The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates as it were my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.”

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The first paragraphs of the conclusion to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

On their Philosophy Bites podcast, David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton asked an impressive array of scientists and philosophers the question “Who’s Your Favorite Philosopher?”. All of the brief responses are worth hearing, though one of my favorites comes from Susan Nieman, protégé of John Rawls and lecturer at the Einstein Forum, who riffs:

If I could only pick one, I’d pick Kant — and I’d pick him because I think he’s actually the bravest of any philosopher.

Kant’s most important insight was that there’s a huge gap between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be, and both of those have equal value. One needs to keep both of them constantly in mind.

It’s an extremely hard stance to take. It’s very modern. It means a certain amount of living on the edge. It means a certain amount of permanent frustration.

People tend to go in one direction or the other. Either they say, ‘well, the way the world is, is all there is, and any ideal is just an illusion that you ought to grow out of.’ Or they project some kind of illusion — this is where you get Stalinism and other ideologies — the way the world ought to be is the way the world is.

Living with both is extremely hard, and it means that you know you’ll never realize entirely the ideals you believe in, but I think it’s only way of being both honest and hopeful at the same time.

I apologize for the extended hiatus. Your regularly scheduled programming resumes now.

What John Updike Thought about the Afterlife

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John Updike

“Karl Barth, another Reformed clergyman, responding in an interview late in his life to a question about the afterlife, said he imagined it as somehow this life in review, viewed in a new light. I had not been as comforted as I wanted to be. For is it not the singularity of life that terrifies us? Is not the decisive difference between comedy and tragedy that tragedy denies us another chance? Shakespeare over and over demonstrates life’s singularity — the irrevocability of our decisions, hasty and even mad though they be. How solemn and huge and deeply pathetic our life does loom in its once-and-doneness, how inexorably linear, even though our rotating, revolving planet offers us the cycles of the day and of the year to suggest that existence is intrinsically cyclical, a playful spin, and that there will always be, tomorrow morning or the next, another chance…

In church this morning, as I half-listened to the Christmas hymns and the reading of the very unlikely, much-illustrated passage from Luke telling how Gabriel came to Mary and told her that the Holy Ghost would come upon her and the power of the Highest would ‘overshadow’ her and make her pregnant with the Son of God, it appeared to me that when we try in good faith to believe in materialism, in the exclusive reality of the physical, we are asking our selves to step aside; we are disavowing the very realm where we exist and where all things precious are kept — the realm of emotion and conscience, of memory and intention and sensation.

I have the persistent sensation, in my life and art, that I am just beginning.”

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Excerpted from the impeccable final chapter “On Being a Self Forever” in John Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs.

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this multifaceted, beautifully written book. Among modern American writers, Updike is perhaps the best known for his prolific output: in looking at his CV, it seems he published a book every month — and a poem every morning along with two essays and a review each afternoon. This unsurpassable fluency and energy come through in the superb writing and versatility of Self-Consciousness. It’s a memoir that covers a lot of ground, effortlessly.

Though I like the biographical narrative of Self-Consciousness, it’s these ruminative asides — profound and deeply personal — that make the book so special. You can read more below.

Sam Harris: The Meaning of the Paris Attacks

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Paris Terror Attacks

“This is the big story of our time, and it is an incredibly boring one. Let the boredom of this just sink into your bones: realize that for the rest of your life, you’re going to be reading and hearing about, and otherwise witnessing, hopefully not firsthand, the lunacy and attendant atrocities of jihadists.

Please pay attention to the recurrent shrieks of Allahu Akbar. This is the cat call from the Middle Ages, or from Middle Earth, that we will have to live with for the rest of our lives. So this fight against jihadism — this is a generational fight. This is something we are doing for our children, ultimately, and for our children’s children.

We have a war of ideas that we have to wage, and win, and unfortunately we have to wage it and win it with ourselves first. And again, this requires an admission that there is such a war of ideas to be waged and won.

We have grown so effete as a civilization as to imagine that we have no enemies — or if we do, that they are only of our own making… It is not mere wartime propaganda that we will one day look back on with embarrassment to call ISIS a death cult. To call them barbarians. To call them savages. To use dehumanizing language.

They are scarcely human in their aspirations. The world they want to build entails the destruction of everything we value, and are right to value. And by “we” I mean civilized humanity, including all the Muslims who are just as horrified…

We have a project that’s universal, that transcends culture; that unites everyone who loves art and science and reason generally, who wants to cure disease, who wants to raise each new generation to be more educated than the last. And this common project is under assault…

And unfortunately, most of us have to keep convincing ourselves that evil exists, that not all people want the same things, and that some people are wrong in how they want to live and the world they want to build. And if we can’t convince ourselves of this once and for all, well then we’ll have to wait to be convinced by further acts of savagery of the sort we just saw in Paris. Why wait?”

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Comments from Sam Harris on the preface to his newly republished essay “Still Sleepwalking toward Armageddon”.

You’ll find more of Sam’s takes on these issues in his newest book, coauthored with Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance. I was lucky enough to meet Maajid two weeks ago in Washington and can enthusiastically recommend this quick, clarifying read. Watch Sam and Maajid talk about the roots of their conversation and the conclusions they’ve made in the following clip from The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell:


The photograph was taken this weekend as mourners gathered at The Place de la République in Paris.

More for the Francophiles:

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