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Peter Boghossian's A Manual for Creating Atheists is a curious and ultimately very valuable book.
It's curious because it doesn't make much of a case -- or at least not the sort of case I would have liked -- for why we should create atheists.
It's valuable because, if you believe we'd be better off with more atheists, this is a remarkable tool for accomplishing that goal.
I don't view sloppy thinking as a great evil in itself. It doesn't offend me the way hunger and lack of medicine and Hellfire missiles offend me. So, I look for the argument -- which I think can be made -- that sloppy thinking has serious results, or that belief in a god leads to a lack of responsibility, or that belief in eternal life diminishes efforts to improve real lives. This book does not focus on those arguments.
Boghossian points to abstinence-only sex-ed, bans on same-sex marriage, teaching Creationism, corporal punishment in schools, and other offenses in the United States, as well as pointing to various more-severe abuses by the Taliban, as the undesirable results of theism. But, with the possible exception of Creationism, these things could continue without theism or be ended while maintaining theism. Perhaps they would be less likely to continue in a theism-free society in which good arguments against those practices had been introduced. I'm inclined to think that atheistic openness to questioning assumptions leads toward swifter and more radical political change, whether for better or for worse, and that because we need positive radical change so desperately we need the ability to take that risk.
In arguing against the assumption that we must always have war, or poverty, or private health insurance companies, or corporate television networks, or oil drilling, or billionaires, one could do much worse than to appropriate some of the arguments that Boghossian uses to argue against the assumption of theism. This is the great value in this book. The author provides a guide and numerous examples of how to gently nudge someone away from what Boghossian calls "faith," as distinct from "religion."
I think the shift toward the word "faith" has largely been driven by people's desire to unload the baggage of specific religious beliefs while maintaining a vague conviction in the existence of some vague something that one has no evidence for the existence of. Boghossian chooses to tackle people's "faith," meaning their practice of believing something with no justification, in order not to challenge their social attachment to church attendance, ceremonies, and support structures of religions. However, I've had people tell me they were theists because they are not omniscient and they appreciate profound mysteries, even though they reject such notions as "god" and "heaven" (as if atheists must claim to be omniscient just because they don't celebrate their ignorance). So those wanting to cling to religion as they lose faith may themselves describe it as their faith evolving.
Boghossian's approach to talking people out of faith is a subtle jiu-jitsu -- part therapy, part community organizing, part Socrates. He cites evidence that people can be talked out of faith, as well as that the process often takes far longer than does conversion to faith. Seeking to encourage those using his manual, the author explains how reactions that seem to reject arguments against faith can actually be signs of making progress.
Boghossian advises targeting people's habits of faith, not the beliefs they hold. He advocates a non-combative, helpful, and questioning Socratic approach. Richard Dawkins comments in a blurb on the back cover: "Peter Boghossian's techniques of friendly persuasion are not mine, and maybe I'd be more effective if they were. They are undoubtedly very persuasive -- and very much needed." I think that's right, but I also think that for a certain type of person, reading this book would be a way to cure them of their god virus.
Still, Boghossian does little of what I think he could have done to persuade us of the desirability of working as evangelical atheists. When, in the course of a conversation, Boghossian wants to provide examples of very moral people who are atheists, he picks Bill Gates (who hoards tens of billions of dollars while thousands of children starve and suffer for lack of it; something one doesn't question if faith in trickle-down economics dominates your thought) and Pat Tillman because he chose to "give his life for his country" (Tillman joined in the senseless slaughter of the people of Afghanistan, came to regret his decision, was killed either accidentally or intentionally by U.S. troops when no Afghans were anywhere nearby, and has been blatantly lied about by the U.S. military and media -- a case where skepticism and freethinking would seem to have been badly needed, but where our brilliant producer of atheists seems to have followed his faith in nationalism in choosing this example.)
Of course, most atheists don't practice cut-throat computer software monopolism, hoard vast wealth, or join in wars. In fact, atheists tend to be more generous and more antiwar than theists. But among those who truly behave morally, including by working and sacrificing for peace and social and economic justice, civil liberties, and the natural environment, are many who say they're motivated by religion. Boghossian, in advocating steering conversations away from abortion or school prayer, says to aim for the root: "Undermine faith, and all faith-based conclusions are simultaneously undermined." One has to hope that doesn't include the good conclusions along with the bad.
Oddly, Boghossian's approach, in which he strives to understand and sympathize with the person whose faith he is attempting to remove, gives very little mention to such motivators of religious belief as the desire not to die. Boghossian uses Socratic questioning to get people to see the error of their ways. He doesn't try to open them up by addressing their unstated fears of death or a world without an authority figure. When death finally gets mentioned, far into the book, the author refers to the atheist's position as "the unknowable" and "not knowing." Not knowing what, exactly? That everything goes blank and ceases? We do know that.
Maybe Boghossian is right that there's nothing to be said on that subject, and a society in which people are not taught religion will be a society with much less religion in it, even while death remains horrifying. Toward the end of the book, the author claims that sound reasoning will give someone a feeling of control that is superior to the feeling of comfort in imagining that their loved one is still alive in a magical place. But this depends, I think, on recognizing that belief in "heaven" is weak and unsatisfying because at odds with most of one's other beliefs. (See In Bad Faith by Andrew Levine.) Surely actually believing that nobody dies and that one prioritizes rational belief formation would be the most preferable combination. But we don't have that choice.
Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible, and the Humanist Press has just republished it together with selections from what Jefferson left out, and selections labeled the best and worst from the Old Testament, the Koran, the Bhagavadgita, the Buddhist Sutras, and the Book of Mormon.
Jefferson created his Bible using two copies of the King James Bible and a razor blade. He cut what he liked out of the New Testament, and left the rest. What he chose to include was supposed to tell the story of a teacher of morality, stripped of all supernatural pretensions. In Jefferson's Bible, virgins don't give birth, dead people don't walk, and water doesn't turn into wine. But Jesus teaches the love of one's neighbor, of one's enemy, of strangers and children and the old.
It's an admirable effort. Someone raised in Christianity but convinced that death is death and humans are responsible for their fate might want to read the good bits of their religious heritage and not be bothered by the rest. Congress printed 9,000 copies in 1904 and handed them out to new House and Senate members for a half century.
But I find Jefferson's Bible a fairly weak and incoherent concoction. Someone who insists on being treated like a god without actually being a god comes off as an inexplicable egomaniac. Someone who engineers his own death and really dies appears to be nothing more than a suicide. Jesus, stripped of the context of his deity, ends up looking like Socrates without all the cleverness.
Imagine if we told the story of Thomas Jefferson without the Declaration of Independence, without the role of founding father. He'd be transformed into an over-educated self-indulgent slave owner, rapist, and advocate of genocide who began a tradition of U.S. warmaking in the Middle East and bestowed upon us the two-party system.
Jefferson's Bible, ironically, serves a purpose other than what he intended. It ends up revealing that the good moral lessons in Jesus' teaching don't amount to all that much. Yes, of course, we should be kind to each other and learn to forgive and befriend our enemies. There is nothing more important, and nobody says that basic lesson better. Jefferson included the parable of the Good Samaritan.
But should we take polygamy and patriarchy and slavery and cutting off hands and other ancient practices for granted as Jesus does? Should we take currently unquestioned practices like war, meat-eating, and fossil-fuel consumption for granted as many do today? What should we question or change? What should we keep as it is? How should we be good and kind? In what way should we love our neighbors and enemies? Should we also love future generations?
Jefferson is thought to have believed that his Bible would educate Native Americans. His policies, in reality, helped to destroy them. Rather than editing an ancient text and translating it into four languages from another continent, might Jefferson have better spent his time giving native Americans the respect that Jesus -- on one occasion but not others -- recommended giving to Samaritans? Jefferson might have discovered that no people exists without an understanding of kindness, love, and humility. The Indians needed Christian kindness, not Christian arrogance. But the Indians weren't called Samaritans, and Jefferson didn't recognize them.
The Humanist Press edition of Jefferson's Bible does help broaden our understanding, as it includes similarly nice and horrific excerpts from a variety of the world's ancient religions (plus Mormonism, the text of which largely mimics ancient cultural norms).
Jefferson was not aiming for the "historical Jesus" but for a naturalist one. The Humanist Press, in its selections of the worst of each religion, is not aiming for simply the most immoral bits but also the most supernatural. The immoral is there in abundance however:
Matthew 10:34-37 "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword. . . ."
Luke 14:26 "If a man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."
John 6:43-55 "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life. . . ."
The Old Testament includes the same good lessons and the same out of date barbarism, or very similar, as the New Testament. The lessons are deeper and more expansive, the barbarity more horrific -- including numerous instances of advocating genocide, slavery, sex-slavery, war, the mutilation of corpses, torture, the mass-slaughter of children, and the celebration of revenge.
The Koran and the other texts, too, contain basic fundamental moral precepts, but few specific recommendations of much use to us right now. I don't mind being advised not to bury female infants alive, but I had no plans to do so. I want to know how to balance duty to family with duty to humanity. I want to know how to integrate charity and respect. I want to learn how to oppose militarism, corruption, oligarchy, greed, consumption, environmental abuse, and all forms of bigotry. I want to know how to be kind to real people in real ways.
Religion doesn't seem to help much. Neither does atheism, of course, except by clearing the deck. The lessons of Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions are packaged in arguments from authority and promises of imaginary rewards and punishments. When that packaging is stripped away, something is lacking. We now need to be told the actual benefits to ourselves of being kind to others: the sense of satisfaction and joy, the love of oneself that is facilitated, the widening of one's knowledge and understanding that comes from accepting the viewpoints and experiences of those unlike oneself.
We do not, of course, need a new Bible. We need novels, memoirs, autobiographies, essays, histories, and poetry. And we need to feel as free as Jefferson did to slice out the parts we find most valuable, piece them together, and expand our understanding from there.
At this year's Veterans For Peace convention in Miami, VFP President Leah Bolger challenged members to take risks: "Many of you have risked a lot for war. What will you risk for peace?"
One VFP member, S. Brian Willson, gave his legs and part of his skull for peace. It was 1987, and the U.S. military was shipping weapons to port, in order to ship them to El Salvador and Nicaragua, where they would be used to slaughter the people of those nations, where, in Willson's words "In one country, we supported a puppet government against a people's revolution; in the other, we supported a puppet revolution against a people's government."
Willson had decided that his own life was not worth more than the lives of non-Americans, that they were losing their lives and limbs as a direct result of our inaction, and that he had a moral responsibility to act. Willson and others sat down on a train track in front of a train full of weapons. The train usually traveled at 5 miles per hour. The train would stop. The protesters would be removed from the tracks. That was the standard practice, and that was the law. But that's not what happened the day Willson lost his legs.
It seems that the military had decided that nonviolent protesters did not exist, that everywhere in the world the only tool available was violence. Therefore, Wilson must be a violent terrorist. Therefore, he and his companions must be planning to jump aboard the train. Therefore, the train must speed up and stop for nothing and nobody. That was the order given. The other protesters moved out of the way in time. Willson, sitting cross-legged, could not. The train ran him over. And then the men driving the train sued Willson for causing them to suffer post traumatic stress.
But something else happened too. Hundreds of people ripped up the track and built a monument out of the railroad ties. People formed blockades of trains on that track for years to come. Every train and nearly every truck was blocked until January 1990. Celebrities showed up and held rallies. Ronald Reagan's daughter wrote a kind letter to Wilson, as did professional sports teams and other big whigs congratulating him on his courageous stand. And similar actions sprang up around the country. Visiting Nicaragua, Willson was treated as a national hero.
But Willson is from our nation, and he's a global hero. Probably his most valuable act, however, has been performed behind a keyboard. "Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson," with an introduction by Daniel Ellsberg, is an epic. This is the long and careful transformation from an eager soldier accepting of rightwing dogma to a principled and courageous advocate for peace and ecological justice. Willson now strives to live sustainably, and brings the reader to question not only the paying of war taxes but the consumption of corporate products generated by the cruel threat of force in foreign lands.
"One day," Willson writes, "the corporations that allow and often enable terrorism in countries like Colombia will be pushed out of those countries. We will no longer be able to buy one-dollar Cokes or ninety-nine-cent-a-pound bananas. Maybe when that day comes, we will finally realize that we do not even desire cheap goods at the cost of others' lives. Maybe we will finally realize that we all share a common humanity."
Willson's book is a tour, with him, of much of the world, from the killing he participated in in Viet Nam, to that he has tried to prevent in Latin America, Palestine, and elsewhere. It’s a philosophical journey, through the course of which Willson learns much from the people he is trying to help. The Zapatistas, the Cubans, and others are not just victims of imperialism, but pioneers in sustainable (and enjoyable!) living. If that idea strikes you as crazy but you're willing to consider a careful argument from someone who began far to your right and doesn't change easily … or if the idea strikes you as plausible and you like to see it laid out in a very human story … either way, you can't do better than to read "Blood on the Tracks," and perhaps we as a people -- and I mean the human people, not the people of some nation -- would be better off if a little more of the blood we are still spilling in such great quantities were spilled on railroad tracks for peace.
Until now, I've always opposed the idea of posting the 10 Commandments on government buildings.
I don't want a theocracy. I don't want religion at all, even separated from government. I'm embarrassed for my species that so many people imagine we haven't advanced at all in millennia. Must we really turn to an ancient book that sanctions slavery and rape, stonings and genocide, to find not only guidance but unquestionable dictates? I'm disgusted by the notion that we should behave decently merely because of an imaginary system of rewards and punishments. Even mice only behave for real cheese and real shocks. How pathetic are we, exactly?
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When the World Outlawed War on November 11, 2011, became the first winner in the "Going For A Global Truce" Peace Contest.
"David Swanson is a truth-teller and witness-bearer whose voice and action warrant our attention." — Cornel West.
“David Swanson has written a fascinating account of how peace once became the law of the land, through the Kellogg-Briand Pact. It is particularly pertinent in the era of the Endless War, by giving encouragement and suggestions of a path forward to those who want to give peace a chance.” — Liz Holtzman, former member of the U.S. Congress.
"David Swanson has done it again with this new book – unearthing history they don’t tell you about in mainstream media." — Jeff Cohen, founder of FAIR and author of Cable News Confidential.
"David Swanson brings his laser focus, brilliant writing, and incredible intelligence to bear in this book, where he makes the case that the Kellogg-Briand Pact was a major step -- as yet unrecognized -- on the path towards eliminating war. He tells a wonderful story, shines light on the unknown peace activists who refused to be deterred by what was considered possible or reasonable, and makes a compelling analogy with slavery -- like war, a worldwide activity deemed unstoppable -- and like war, an immoral crime that must be ended. I have been active in the antiwar movement from Vietnam through Iraq. I have done political work for some of the most antiwar candidates of the modern era -- McGovern, Jackson, Nader, Kucinich. I have marched and petitioned, organized and strategized, and played a part in peace demonstrations from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to London and New York. And I am a history buff. But until I read David Swanson's book, I had never heard this story before -- and certainly never understood why it was important." — Steve Cobble, former political director of the National Rainbow Coalition, advisor to Jackson, Nader, and Kucinich presidential campaigns
“Swanson has done it again. This is a masterful account of how Americans and people around the world worked to abolish war as a legitimate act of state policy and won. Swanson’s account of the successful work of those who came before us to insist that war be outlawed compels us today to rethink the cost and morality of cynical or weary inaction in the face of our repeated resort to military threats and warfare to achieve policy goals.” — Jeff Clements, Author of Corporations Are Not People.
"David Swanson's fascinating new history of the development of the much neglected campaign in the 1920s to outlaw war has many lessons for anti-war activists today. An essential read." — Andrew Burgin, Stop the War Coalition.
"David Swanson predicates his belief that nonviolence can change the world on careful research and historical analysis. This compelling and wonderfully readable narrative examines pacifist developments in the U.S., dating back to the 1920s. Swanson then examines contemporary anti-war efforts. He writes from a particularly advantageous perspective because he is firmly rooted in plans and actions designed to put an end to war. Drawing from historical examples of success and failure, he help readers imagine achieving the U.N.’s eloquent mandate: 'to eliminate the scourge of war.'" — Kathy Kelly, Voices for Creative Nonviolence.
“From Daybreak to War Is A Lie to When the World Outlawed War to a prodigious number of essays (and that’s just since the ’08 election) David Swanson combines the timeliest scholarship and logical elegance in a call to action: ‘to learn how to enjoy working for the moral good for its own sake.’” — John Heuer, Veterans for Peace.
“One of the best ways to radicalize someone’s thinking is to force the person to look at a cherished ideal in a fundamentally new way. David Swanson does that with War, an ideal cherished by too many Americans. Can the United States ever be weaned from its love affair with war — Endless War? This book provides the background for dealing with that question.” — William Blum, author of Killing Hope, and of Freeing the World to Death.
“How many Americans know that an American peace movement in the 1920s mobilized millions of people, and eventually the U.S. government, to get the world’s major powers to formally renounce war? Or that the Kellogg-Briand Pact is still on the books making our current leaders guilty of the same crime that we hung people for at Nuremberg? It’s time for a little education! David Swanson has written a wonderfully well-documented history of a time when Americans discovered their own power to organize and impact their government on the most vital issue facing the world, then and now: the abolition of war.” — Nicolas Davies, author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.
“Polls show a large majority of U.S. citizens oppose current U.S. wars, but many Americans’ reluctance to engage in antiwar activism is in part due to their sense of impotence at having any impact on their own government. This book tells the story of how the highly energized Peace Movement in the 1920s, supported by an overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens from every level of society, was able to push politicians into something quite remarkable — the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy. The 1920s War Outlawry movement was so popular that most politicians could not afford to oppose it. If any one piece of American history can re-energize the American people to again push their politicians, then this book can do it.” — Bruce E. Levine, author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite.
“‘Ahhh, peace, that would be so nice,’ an Afghan grandmother whispered after recounting how 30 years of war had devastated her family. The world community has failed her miserably, as it has failed so many millions from the Congo to Iraq to Sri Lanka. But David Swanson’s book gives us a glimpse of another possible reality, a world that says no to war. By recounting the heroic efforts of a generation in the 1920s that actually did pass a treaty banning war, Swanson invites us to dream, to scheme and most important, to take action.” — Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CODEPINK.
“David Swanson is on a mission to end war. In his latest book he brings to life an important story about a time when a national peace movement raged across our nation. The media covered this movement, and members of Congress were active participants. Through this movement a treaty was signed that outlawed war. Sadly today few know about this significant moment in our history, but Swanson’s book will help change that.” — Bruce K. Gagnon, Coordinator, Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space.
“In an era of what sometimes seems like Orwellian permanent war, David Swanson’s Outlawing War reminds us of those in earlier periods who attempted the unthinkable for many of outlawing war. It is a timely reminder that nothing is inevitable in the way things are, that extraordinary things can be done, and that movements are not inexorably doomed to fail." — Ben Davis.
Print ISBN 978-0-9830830-9-2
eBook ISBN 9781456605735
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A Sign in Robin Hensel's Yard in Little Falls, MN, Which Only Allows Pro-War Signs:
The New York Times published an op-ed on May 7th by a professor here in Charlottesville, Va., arguing that celebrating the killing of Osama bin Laden is actually a good thing, because in so celebrating we are building solidarity with those we view as part of our exclusive group. Implicit in this argument is that we can do no better. Bonding over our common hatred of an outsider is better than no bonding at all, and therefore we should rebrand such hatred as altruism. Or so says psychology professor Jonathan Haidt.
Review of "Honor For Us: A Philosophical Analysis, Interpretation, and Defense" By William Lad Sessions, Continuum.
William Lad Sessions is a philosophy professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. I was once a philosophy student at the University of Virginia. Both schools have honor codes for their students. I experienced UVA's honor code as one of the most thrilling discoveries of my life. W&L's has inspired Sessions to write a book.
According to the Pentagon's lawyer, Martin Luther King Jr., if alive today, would view the US war on Afghanistan as both the act of a Good Samaritan and as necessary self-defense.
Jeh C. Johnson, the "Defense" Department's general counsel, said, on the one hand:
"I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack."
On the other hand, he also said this:
By David Swanson
On Saturday, June 5, I took part in an event organized by Jeff Nall of Humanists for Peace, together with Nall, Armineh Noravian, and Debra Sweet. Nall had organized a panel at the national conference of the American Humanist Association to talk about the need to work for peace. And the room was packed.
By David Swanson
Chris Hedges is one of the best, one of the most morally useful, writers we have. He's free of loyalty to political party or dogma. He knows war first hand and describes it without flinching. He's an almost ideal gadfly to our corporatocracy. But he has a hangup on religion that holds him back.