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I have this idea that I need to get out of my head. I need to preface it by making the following disclaimers. I am an atheist. I have no interest in ‘proving’ any of the faithful that he is wrong. I am not asking anyone to reconsider his position, theological or philosophical. I simply wish to tell a story and ask a question, which admittedly is really an observation.

Here goes.

I think every religion seeks to place man within the cosmos, and this position embodies a contradiction. Generally, religions claim mankind is insignificant, needing the grace of a deity to make their lives meaningful. The contradiction is that a deity deign spend time on helping the ants find salvation.

In this context, and specifically in the  Judeo-Christian tradition, I made up the following. From my reading of the Bible, God sounds like a son of a bitch. Granted, I was more interested in the Old Testament, but there are enough militant statements in both Old and New Testaments speaking to man’s insignificance and need for God’s grace. God provides meaning to life. Fulfilling His desire gives purpose to man.

So, the story I concocted is that evolution need not be nemesis of religion. In fact, it would fit in magnificently (in a literary sense.  It is based on my interpretation of the character of the Almighty). One image I hear from Christians is that we are akin to children playing in the mud. Kids playing in the mud certainly can’t clean each other well. You need someone not in the muck. The analogous situation is that any creature less than God to grant purpose and meaning is a profane idea. If God does not exist, the false idol/prophet/holy man dispensing advice and using philosophy to give us purpose is like having one dirty child cleaning another. We need an omniscient being to become a cosmic referee, as it were.

In this context, evolution – in which the central principles are supported by a wealth of evidence from molecular biology research, fossil records, genome comparisons, the selection of antibody resistant microbes, dog breeders, and orchid growers, for example – simply underscores how insignificant we would be without God.

For example, we know that there is a record of life going back at least 500 million years. Humans share a genetic code that have similarities to apes, monkeys, dogs, mice, cats, lizards, birds, and fish. There is also a library of ape fossils where one can see semblance to human bone structures. After showing us that mankind is a part of the world around him, wouldn’t it make sense to show mankind that by possessing God’s grace (whether it be salvation, purpose, or insight), this trait allows man to transcend his status as animal? Doesn’t such a story imbue mankind with distinction conferred entirely by God, that without him we are in fact a bunch of great apes?

My observation/question to the religion-inclined is, “Can you show me where in the Bible you can refute this story?”

Since I did base this (OK, maybe I am guilty of trying to needle Christians) on a literary reading of the Bible, can you really argue whether my interpretation is so off base? What would you use as evidence, some passages from the Bible that I would be unlikely to use? How would you decide among all the existing creation myths? What are your criteria for dismissing Zeus and the Olympians but not Jesus, or Allah, or Yahweh, or the Buddha?

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What a strange book. The whole point of being is to trash intellectuals who idealizes the pursuit of freedom (either in behavior, in intellectual pursuits, from society). Paul Johnson admitted that it was unfair to use the private lives of individuals to judge the strength of their thoughts, but nonetheless he spent the entire book documenting the deficiencies of men who talked big and lived meanly. The quality of the men never matched the beauty of their vision, prose, or poetry.

The futility of such an exercise is noted early, in the chapter about Shelley. Johnson admits that this cad was a wastrel who had no compunction about writing mean letters detailing the failures of his parents while concurrently asking for money. Shelley used people, seeing his family as nothing but a source of income and women no more than a means for physical pleasure. Naturally, he thought himself liberal, dispensing with archaic institutions of monogamy. He expected his wife to accept his mistress to share their apartment, but he graciously extended the same privilege to his wife (whom apparently complained about this arrangement.)

Regardless, all this is peripheral: Johnson thinks Shelley wrote beautifully, and his poetry moved Johnson. Johnson writes,

The truth, however, is fundamentally different and to anyone who reveres Shelley as a poet (as I do) it is deeply disturbing. It emerges from a variety of sources, one of the most important of which is Shelley’s own letters.”

Great. But why should the gap between artisanal accomplishments and the empty lives of artists be so surprising, in an age when starlets, athletes, politicians, authors, musicians, and entertainers behave as if they were competing for the favor of the Borgias? Johnson already conceded the point that he can appreciate the artistry, if not the artist.

There was one high point in the book, though. Johnson destroyed Karl Marx on both a personal and professional level. In this instance, it seems that there are elements in Marx’s personality that might have directly resulted in the shoddy intellectual quality of his work. Marx made a better short form than long form writer; the long form exposed Marx’s deficiencies as a researcher and investigator. Das Kapital contained a number of misuse of evidence. Marx did do a spectacular job of digging up dirt on his enemies, though.

In a coda, Johnson links 2oth century atrocities to both secular intellectuals ignoring atrocities committed in their name and to the social milieu they created that promoted nihilism (namely in excesses of Communist regimes.)  It seems to me a simpler case that these mass murderers were ambitious, ruthless, and disposed to murder even before they encountered post-modern philosophy. As much as I detest social relativism, post-modernism, and religious dogma, I can’t fault these ideas as causing mass effects. I can, however, fault the men who, upon gaining power to commit atrocities, cloak their acts in the trappings of a recognizable philosophy.  To suggest that terrorists or dictators  valued life until reading a book seems to be placing the cart before the horse.

In the end, I do agree with Johnson in that it is so disappointing that philosophers rarely reach the ideals they espouse. So what else is new?

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