Archive for February, 2010


February 28, 2010

The great instigator of doubt– but let’s not call it that, let’s call it skeptical reflection leading to spiritual awakening– of both the 19th and 20th centuries, hands down, has been the effort either to assimilate or repulse the human  implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  That’s why I wish Jennifer Hecht had reserved a slot in Doubt‘s penultimate chapter, somewhere in the vicinity of her discussion of the Tennessee “monkey trial,” for mention of John Dewey’s “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy.”

But it’s a good discussion of the Scopes circus trial, to which I claim a small “degrees of separation” connection: I lived under the same roof, for a short time, with one of Clarence Darrow’s expert witnesses who was not allowed to testify in Dayton, Tennessee on behalf of John Scopes. I remember Winterton Curtis, my first landlord, as a kindly, charming old man who mysteriously pulled dollars from my ear.  (The Dayton judge would’ve seen that as proof of his Satanic nature, no doubt.) He was also very respectful of the locals H.L. Mencken derided as “boobs.”

If you want to learn more about Scopes, Dayton, and Friendly Atheism, read Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey. Chapman, great-great-great-(great?) grandson of Charles Darwin himself, went down to Dayton to try and understand the curious breed of human known as Young Earth Creationist [more]. He still doesn’t get it (any more than I do), but he actually confesses to liking many of the Darwin Deniers he met and spoke with– including one (Kurt Wise) who studied with Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard, before being hired to teach biology (!) to Bryan University undergraduates.

And if you want to see an entertaining dramatic rendition of Scopes, watch Spencer Tracy and Frederic March in Inherit the Wind.

Twain & James

February 27, 2010

Jennifer Hecht places Mark Twain in the 20th century, though he– like William James– came to fame and fortune (and loss) in the 19th. Both died in 1910,  Twain famously exiting with the comet he came in on.

Twain’s credentials as a free-thinker are well-known. James is remembered more for his belief in believing, especially others’ believing, and for respecting faiths of all kinds when they proved adaptive and beneficial for living. His will to believe was pure, pragmatically speaking.

So it probably surprises some to discover this 1901 James declaration:

“I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.”
I wish Ms. Hecht had found room for a paragraph or two on James, alongside those on Twain. Fortunately there’s an excellent book-length study by Gary Horn that brings them smartly together: Mark Twain and William James: Crafting a Free Self.

And here’s some good advice from Mr. Twain for all who dread getting started with some project or other– such as a mid-term essay, say? First task: write a sentence. Second task: write another one. Do it ’til the habit forms. Or you could do a presentation.
As WJ said: life (not to mention that infernal essay!)  will be built in doing and suffering and creating. It may not be the way you want to spend your weekend, but as I tell myself when deadlines loom: this is one of the ways we distinguish ourselves from our knuckle-dragging cousins. This is what makes us the rational animal. Right, Sam?

WJ 6.1

February 26, 2010

There are other things to talk about, in our next James installment. But all else for James is overshadowed by loss, in 1882. This week in particular, I can relate:

Darwin died, Emerson died. His mother died at age 71. Before the year was out, his father followed suit. James was abroad when his Dad began his final descent, and quickly drafted a letter that preceded him back to Boston. But it did not arrive in time for Henry Sr. to read.

It is a remarkable letter, one which I found it fitting to read to my own father* when his remaining days were few. William was still aboard ship on Dec. 21, continuing his Atlantic transit,  when his brother Henry stood at their father’s graveside  and  read aloud from that letter that began: “Darling Old Father…”

“The letter concludes: “As for us… we will stand by each other and  by Alice, try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us… And it comes strangely over me in bidding you goodby how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note, it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary goodnight. Good night my sacred old Father. If I don’t see you again– Farewell! A blessed Farewell! -Your William”

Richardson rightly observes: “Letters, even undelivered, outlast life. It was a scene a novelist would be hard-pressed to improve.” *It sure was.

19th century spirit

February 25, 2010

It’s exam day in A&S and this chapter is not on it, so I’ll be brief.

I’m not quite ready for the 19th century anyway, I want first to pause and savor the Treaty of Tripoli signed into law by John Adams in 1797 that declared: the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion… any more than it is a Jewish or a Mohammedan nation. John Adams!

Women, drawn by the new century’s burgeoning reform movements, are about to start showing up at doubt’s party in greater numbers. (One of our adult learners Tuesday night was concerned, on his granddaughters’ behalf, about the  disproportionate representation of males in this story. Me too.) Anne Newport Royall, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, Fanny Wright, Harriet Martineau…

Equally significant: this will be the century when doubters really begin to understand themselves as affirmers, championing a conception of the godless universe as liberating, not defining themselves strictly in opposition to orthodoxy. Martineau declares God “so irrelevant as to make me blush.” When she finally lets go not only of God but also of residual fantasies of an afterlife, she delights to find herself “a free rover on the broad, bright breezy common of the universe, the happiest woman in England.”

Darwin’s naturalistic evolutionary account of the human epic gives non-theists new legs. And there are the romantic poets (and Emily Dickinson), and Kierkegaard and Marx and Schopenhauer– his line about immortalists “hot for atheism” is funny– and Nietzsche trumpeting his Ubermenschen of the future and denigrating the nihilism of old-time religion (and philosophy).

And J.S. Mill (of his own free will), proclaiming liberty and utility.  And countless others.

And Thomas Hardy, officiating at God’s funeral.

I could not prop their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, once had prized.

Still, how to bear such loss I deemed
The insistent question for each animate mind,
And gazing, to my growing sight there seemed
A pale yet positive gleam low down behind

medievals and scholastics

February 24, 2010

What fun, teaching my evening class last night to an engaged, intelligent, impassioned group of adult learners whose eagerness to discern the spiritual possibilities inherent in a world without gods matches my own! We didn’t quite solve the challenge: how to create a self-sustaining, mutually supportive, visibly active community of non-believers in this region of the country, traditionally so inhospitable to non-belief. But we sure took a good first step, proclaiming (like those Whos down in Whoville) we are here, we are here...

And that on the heels of a terrific A&S class yesterday, led by Miso’s report of his interview with a Muslim friend who grew up here but left his heart in Kurdistan, considering American culture crass and licentious. The profile of the young man he painted for us so vividly struck me as chilling– just as the late John Updike’s young man in Terrorist was chilling, at home in neither world, a kind of ticking bomb just waiting for tinder to set him off.

But this is a post about medievals and scholastics, who we’re reading about in Intro. [NOTE TO STUDENTS: come to class today, all your questions about the Friday exam, reports, presentations etc. will be answered.]

The first figure discussed by Simon Critchley in today’s reading is The Venerable Bede, who apparently faced his end considerably less venerably than the poet advised, without “unfaltering trust.” With his dying words he quoted Paul, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” breaking down and weeping over the dread departure of the soul from the body and the prospect of God’s judgment. This is disappointing: I always thought Bede had earned his name. Wallace Stegner cited his “truest vision of life” as analogous to a bird flying out of darkness into a lighted hall, and then soon out again (Spectator Bird). My wife and I used that quote on our wedding-scroll tokens.

Then there’s the Neoplatonist John Scottus Eriugena, who (like Plotinus) said the world is best understood as a dynamic process of emanation from the divine One. His view anticipated the pantheism of Spinoza— “Atheism is reversed Pantheism,” said Feuerbach (who also said you are what you eat) and the “heresy” of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600 for discovering a few astronomical truths and speculating about other worlds. The human being is the microcosm of the divine macrocosm of nature. Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it,” he said as he batted away the crucifix that would supposedly have saved him.

The Inquisitors were more successful in extracting a recantation from Galileo, but it’s nice to believe he did mutter “Pero si muove” under the breath of his confession.”Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze.”

It’s so refreshing to be reminded of the Islamic “falsafa” tradition, committed (as in the case of Al-Farabi) to combining logical rigor and empiricism with their neoplatonic mysticism. Avicenna‘s concupiscible faculties are impressive. “I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length.”

Critchley has a good answer to Anselm. I can conceive of neither death nor God. They both passeth understanding. The ontological proof comes up short, the soul remains elusive (or illusory).

Poor Abelard. Hard to say his name without cringing.

Averroists defended the autonomy of philosophy and its separation from questions of theology and religious faith. We still wage that battle. Can’t we all just co-exist? No, our magisteria really do overlap, Professor Gould notwithstanding.

MaimonidesGuide for the Perplexed was a perennial best-seller throughout the middle ages: a measure of the perplexity many faith traditions engender, when running up against the realities of modernity.

Aquinas argues against the separation of the natural and the spiritual and in favor of their continuity. Me too! But not quite like he says.

Bonaventure worried that the separation of the worlds of faith and reason would ultimately culminate in atheism. Could be.

Duns Scotus gave us haecceity, a very useful word that never comes up in casual conversation. It means the uniqueness or the indivisible “thisness” of a person.

Ockham gaves us a razor. Machiavelli a manual, Erasmus a satire. More lost his head. Luther played with paradox and renounced philosophy. Copernicus re-oriented us. Montaigne invented the essay…

Gotta love Francis Bacon’s death by empiricism, when his strange sudden impulse to stuff a chicken with snow backfired and he caught his death. Curiosity and the experimental imperative killed him, it seems, but generations of carnivores ever-after were gratified by his sacrifice.

live long and prosper

February 23, 2010

Jennifer Hecht’s Genesis poem includes a nod to Spinoza– Voltaire’s Enlightenment was nice but Spinoza led the Jews into light a good two centuries prior– and to Trekkies…

There is a flicker poetry to the universe and it had already started when we got here.  Yet we can star in it, standing there like Captain Picard. Our hearts on our sleeves like Commander Troi There are millions of galaxies to change our minds, yet we get our hearts replaced more often. Leonard Nimoy and Bill Shatner are both Jewish; the “live long and prosper” hand gesture rabbinical, a secret sign a young Nimoy spotted in shul when his father told him to close his eyes and he peeked instead. There they are on the bridge, Kirk and Spock, sailing into the universe where no one has ever gone before, exile upon exile, until nothing feels like home as much as further exile, further out, further on, ancient secrets furling secrets like fractals.

And lots more. She really sings the  spiritual side of natural oblivion, and makes it fun. What other kind of universe would you most want to be at home in, than one you had to leave?

Vulcan spirituality isn’t in today’s A&S readings (though it sorta was, in last week’s: Stoics and Buddhists are pretty Vulcan-ish). But it seems like everything else is: Galileo and Copernicus, Calvin and Hobbes, Erasmus, Luther, Rabelais, Montaigne, Spinoza, Voltaire, Hume, Franklin, Jefferson… and in for a cameo, all of doubt’s old friends from Raphael’s School of Athens.

Thomas Hobbes didn’t call himself an atheist but his Leviathan state was widely perceived to be a God substitute, an authority to keep us all in awe. Hell, he said, was just a fantasy to control people. Foolish people, “they that make little or no enquiry into the natural causes of things…”

Voltaire, a Deist who found no grounds for believing in a worship-worthy Creator, probably inspired more people to reject their childhood religion than anyone else at that time… “Ecrasez l’infame!”

Spinoza: No one, not human beings, not God, could have free will. Nature was self-causing. There were no miracles. Supernaturalism did not have to be rationalized– it could simply be dismissed. If all that sounds too austere, he consoles us with a dose of Epicureanism: nothing forbids our pleasure except a savage and sad superstition. He means pleasures like study, wine, good food, the beauty of green things, theater, and sports.

Hume (who loved Cicero): We don’t need religion for morality, religion itself got its morality from everyday morality– based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow–  in the first place. Somebody should tell Stanley Fish. (And tell him too that English deists like John Locke counselled: to improve life, do not ask God for help.)

Jefferson (who did not love Plato): Jesus would reject all Christianity. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried was Jefferson’s attempt, when he took scissors to the Bible. The resulting  Jefferson Bible, he intended, would reflect “the most sublime and benevolent [and humane and natural] code of morals” yet devised by mortal man, and it would nestle safely behind the sacred wall so many of our self-righteous contemporaries have been so eager to tear down. That’s one founder’s “original intent” they consistently ignore.  He was a Deist, but considered that his personal business and none of the state’s. (If you missed it before, check out Maira Kalman’s tribute to the Sage of Monticello.)

And I’ll bet you didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition. You should’ve.

faith & reason

February 22, 2010

Not a great weekend, spent hugging and sobbing and laying grandpa to rest. He was a sharp, strong, vigorous, free man right up until the sudden, unanticipated end Friday morning. It’s never good, when the phone rings at 4:30 am.  I reminded many shaken people, this weekend, that the pain will recede sooner than they recall. Of course we’ll always miss him, and sometimes it will hurt; but that feeling will be joined by the positive memories that mark our way out of debilitating grief. Trans-end-dance. Move beyond the end.

Shifting gears won’t be easy, from the cemetery yesterday to Christianity and Islam and Zen and the Scholastics today (and the latest James installment we didn’t get to on Friday).  Presentations begin this week, and a little exam. We’ll talk about it in class.

Some highlights to hit in Intro, from Passion for Wisdom:

*The Christian concept of human sinfulness, the fall, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and vicarious salvation is, in terms of any ordinary notions of justice or redemption, an extremely difficult notion… belief in an afterlife had never been the official doctrine among the Jews… The ultimate personal question of Christianity becomes, How is one to be saved? Is this the right question? How do we answer it, or any question that defies rational understanding? Should faith or reason rule? Must this question be either/or?

*Philo reinterpreted Biblical tales as mythic statements about the nature of the human condition and humanity’s relationship to the divine.

*It was Paul  who interpreted Jesus as the Son of God… who interpreted Jesus’ crucifixion as an atomement for all human sins.

*In contrast to Plato, who denigrated the material world as a lesser reality (comparing it to shadows in a cave), Plotinus saws the material world as itself spiritual… Matter is merely the lowest of the emanations. But would it make more sense to speak of matter not as a trickle-down emanation but as a bubbling-up product of complexification?

*If (with Plotinus and Augustine) you re-define evil as an “absence of good,” have you really minimized anyone’s suffering?

*If we suppose a God freely chooses to  endow humans with free will, how does that mitigate divine responsibility for suffering? With freedom comes responsibility, without qualification.

*The Islamic worldview is fundamentally egalitarian… [it] takes everyone to be equal in the eyes of God. Have you run that by Ophelia Benson?

*Sufis (for instance) seek complete absorption in God… gnosis, the elimination of  the ego, an experience of ecstasy in which the believer becomes one with God… Setting aside the believer’s own experience, don’t we face the same question raised previously: does this shift of perspective alter anyone’s actual suffering?

*How does it follow from the Zen perspective (“everything is related”) that everything is “nothing”?

*Averroes (Ibn Rushd) said literal fundamentalism is sufficient for ordinary individuals, but educated people also require persuasive argument Isn’t this condescending? What would Dan Dennett say?

*If Anselm‘s proof of the existence of God fails, conceptually, how can it make the nature of God clearer to those who already have faith?

*There is no Platonic Form or essence of cat, only numerous cats… Words trick us into thinking in terms of universals, but they’re not real. True? But is our language not also liable to trick us into neglecting the shared attributes that constitute species? Can you still believe in species (feline, homo sapiens, etc.)  if all they name are loose collections of individual cats and people?

*Aquinas said revelation was an appropriate instrument for understanding the supernatural world. Why should we believe in a supernatural world in the first place?

*John Calvin said even newborn babies deserve damnation and considered humans utterly insignificant… Why should we saddle ourselves, our kids, and our departed loved ones with such terms of abuse?


February 20, 2010
In 1903, William James eulogized Ralph Waldo Emerson on the centenary of his birth:
“The pathos of death is this, that when the days of one’s life are ended, those days that were so crowded with business and felt so heavy in their passing, what remains of one in memory should usually be so slight a thing. The phantom of an attitude, the echo of a certain mode of thought, a few pages of print, some invention, or some victory we gained in a brief critical hour, are all that can survive the best of us. It is as if the whole of a man’s significance had now shrunk into a mere musical note or phrase suggestive of his singularity — happy are those whose singularity gives a note so clear as to be victorious over the inevitable pity of such a diminution and abridgement.”
Sadly, I’ve had too-frequent occasion to quote this marvelous passage of late. But it’s so true.
Freddie William Roth‘s singularity leaves an indelible, resonant note. He left a more tangible mark than most of us will, on the roads and bridges of middle Tennessee to be sure, but even more impressively in the hearts and memories of all of us who loved him. He was a terrific father-in-law, a devoted grandpa, a loving husband and father. His work ethic was unrivaled, his random acts of kindness were countless, his solicitude for friends and neighbors was constant. He was a strong man with a generous and steady heart, forced by circumstance (his dad’s illness) to grow up sooner than he should have had to. He was “a man in full,” possessed of a more self-reliant and self-effacing temper than we’re accustomed to these days. He lived for others, and was true to himself. We will miss him terribly.
I teach philosophy. Lately my students and I have been thinking about an old Greek named Epicurus and an old Roman named Seneca. Epicurus said death is nothing to fear, that it is literally an event we never experience for ourselves at first-hand. Seneca said we must nonetheless armor ourselves against it, as against all unforeseen subtractions. Nothing was ever ours for permanent keeping. We need to appreciate all that we have, while we have it, and not bemoan the inevitable.
Seneca also said we must live not just for ourselves, but for one another. And Marcus Aurelius said (long before the sentiment was immortalized in popular song) to live each day as though it were your last.
I tell my students that it is a sign of desperation to suppose that you would live your last day any differently than you lived the rest of them. David tells me Freddie had a full and gratifying day on Thursday, capping the evening of his last full day on Earth with his favorite passtime: watching the Tennessee girls play basketball, with his family, on the evening of his last full day on Earth. He’d do it again. Freddie Roth was at home in his skin, in his world. He was not a
desperate man.
One of my favorite American novels is Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. The title refers to “the angle at which a man or woman finally lies down…[but] there’s another angle. Wisdom is knowing what you have to accept.” Freddie Roth never took a philosophy class but he was a wise man too.
In my line of work we have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be. I lost my own Mom and Dad in 2008, and took much comfort then in sharing a little children’s story “for all ages” with our girls: Leo Buscalgia’s story about a leaf named Freddy, who learns to accept the seasons of life and death and to harbor new hope for Springs to follow. He learns that “Everything dies. No matter how big or small, how weak or strong. We first do our job. We experience the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain. We learn to dance and to laugh. Then we die.”
Most of all he learns to treasure the life he’s been granted, and to see the life to come after him as his to treasure as well. “Why were we here at all if we only have to fall and die? It’s been about the sun and the moon. It’s been about happy times together. It’s been about the shade and the old people and the children. It’s been about colors in Fall. It’s been about seasons. Isn’t that enough?”
Freddie Roth thought it was enough to live honorably, work constructively, and lift a helping hand to lighten the sorrows and lift the spirits of his peers. He was, in Bertrand Russell’s most elevated sense of the term, a free man. And he was of that generation whose greatest exemplars, of whom he was certainly one, believed in the civic virtue of “paying forward.” He invested in his community, his family, his grandchildren. His investment capital: himself, his time and energy and intelligence and passion.
There aren’t that many of those kinds of men still with us. We can best honor their example by emulation.
Thank you, Freddie.

WJ 5.1

February 19, 2010

It’s the mid-1870s and James is about to get married. First, he’s dining with the aged Emerson whose self-reliant individualism is, or will be, an inspiration as the younger man sets about building and creating his life “in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world.”  WJ 5

“The innermost nature of things is congenial to powers that [we] possess.” Put another way, he “trusted outward things to perform their part so as to make it a full harmony.”

That’s the faith-based assumption James is acting on now, the spine-straightening expectation that decisive action will be rewarded. Maybe it will be its own reward. Besides Emerson, we’ve seen, Renouvier is in his corner. So is John Stuart Mill, from whom he is learning “the pragmatic openness of mind” and the emphasis on “fruits not roots.” He was also learning from Mill the value of “the most valuable friendship” a person can forge.

A far less conventional influence is that of Benjamin Paul Blood, one of the characters, “cranks, quacks, and imposters” James seems constantly to attract with that vaunted openness of mind. Blood’s Anaesthetic Revelation claimed that nitrous oxide gas had opened doors of perception for him revealing “the genius of being.” James would follow Blood’s example, with hilarious results. But his final view was that “what blunts the mind and weakens the will is no full channel for truth.”

We touched briefly the other day on James’s (and the other classic American philsoophers ‘) fascination the  new evolutionary hypothesis. But he and they had little use for the Social Darwinism of people like Herbert Spencer. “Survival is only one out of many interests that makes survival worthy securing.” Also crucial: “the social affections,” playfulness, art , contemplation, religious emotion , fancy and wit. For each of us, the interests of others than ourselves are a huge part of the environment with which we must cope.

In 1878 James finished “The Sentiment of Rationality,” offering a personal and unconventional definition of the term, leaning heavily on subjective qualities. It is a “feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment” marked by a sense of “ease, peace, rest.” This is definitely not the standard or received view in philosophy, but it’s how James’s own mind worked. His “rational” may seem closer to rationalization than to rationality. But he may just be right: we may in fact tend to rationalize the views in which we take our ease, and come to regard them as the standard of rationality.

And so the decision to marry, at first fraught with indecision and worry, became for James the epitome of rationality. “To me  such decisions seem acts by which we are voting what sort of a universe this shall intimately be.” Alice’s “yes” pushes James’s universe a long stride in the direction of ease, peace, rest. It’s no Pascalian Wager.

And, he commits to a very important professional project, The Principles of Psychology. And to an important personal/professional association with Josiah Royce.

Muslim spirit

February 18, 2010

Muslim spirituality occasionally strikes some of us as, um, immoderate. Immodestly so.

Burqas and hijabs are an ironic symbol of the inconsistency between modesty on behalf of the natural human form, and immodest assertions of  exceptionalism descending from the One True Prophet’s world-deploring prohibitions.* Ophelia Benson is moved to ask “Does God Hate Women?” and to “examine the role of religions in the subordination, control, concealment, and punishment of women, from Vatican lectures on the female nature to sharia-based stoning.” In particular, women under theocracy “have few if any rights, they are kept out of school as children, they are illiterate, they receive less food than men however hard they work, they are confined to the house or required to wear stifling, movement-inhibiting clothing if they go outside, they are denied medical treatment, they are forbidden to vote or drive cars, and they are whipped or beaten if they disobey.”

*But note: many Muslim women bristle at what they regard as westerners’ misinformed advocacy of their “liberation.”

But there is, it turns out, a much stronger tradition of Muslim doubt than is widely appreciated. Bertrand Russell‘s “Why I am not a Christian” actually has an Islamic imitator, Ibn Warraq (a nom de plume), who challenges the faith’s dogma about the Koran’s inerrancy in “Why I am Not a Muslim.” [His comment on the Fort Hood Tragedy and the “Root Cause Fallacy“]

Holy Books are human documents, without exception. Far from revering the Bible as untouchable, many prominent and pious Christians through the centuries have openly challenged its authenticity. Thomas Jefferson even took scissors to it, snipping all the supernatural bits.

The Muslim Holy Book is no different. “Indeed, the Koran could well stand as the supreme example of a man-made text, worked over and doctored to an unfathomable extent, and subsequently endowed with a transcendental provenance by the associative and projective proclivities of the human imagination… ‘if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence simply doesn’t make sense…. The fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible.’ If this is the case, why is the impression abroad, among both Muslims and non-Muslims, that we not only know what the Koran is, but what it says? The explanation lies in the fact that once the Koran existed, in some form or another, not necessarily the form we know today, people began to make up stories about it…” What the Koran Really Says

The good news: there is  a rich heritage of free inquiry in the medieval Muslim tradition. For instance:

Muhammad al-Warraq referred to God as an idiot, because “He who orders his slave to do things that he knows him to be incapable of doing, then punishes him, is a fool.”

And: “People developed the science of astronomy by gazing at the sky, and no prophet was necessary to show them how to gaze… We can know the world on our own.”

Besides Ibn Warraq, the greatest contemporary former Muslim freethinker is probably Ayaan Hirsi Ali. We’ll read her “How (and Why) I Became an Infidel” next month.

Islam’s harshest critic among the New Atheists, here sounding quite measured and temperate, is Hitch (A&S students: don’t forget to look at his Omar Khayyam selection in PA):