Monday, October 3, 2011

What Do You Do With a Drunken Atheist?

A couple of weeks ago I upset a few Terry Pratchett fans in comments at another blog because I disrespected his much-reported remark that he'd rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel. Cults of personality are everywhere, so I guess that even someone like me who owns all his books (and the new one is due next week!) and has been recommending them to people for decades must tread softly, for I tread upon their dreams.

The cultists were furious when I pointed that if you're a Darwinian, you don't believe that evolution has a direction, whether forward or upward. Pratchett didn't mean it literally! they shrilled. It's a metaphor! Okay, but what does the metaphor mean? (Actually, as you can see if you watch the video below, he did mean it literally, but it's still a metaphor. Climbing a tree can be fun, it can be useful if you need to escape a ground-based predator or to look into the distance, but it's not a moral achievement, let alone a metaphysical one.  And P.S.: In fact, human beings metaphorically came down from the trees, so we are really "fallen monkeys."  Metaphorically.) The important thing, I take it, is that Pratchett is a Good Guy, hostile to fundamentalist Bible-beating Creationists; he plays on Our Team; he's not One of Them.

If I'd been in Pratchett's seat that night, I'd have answered the question about believing in gods by quoting Lords and Ladies:
"I don't hold with paddlin' with the occult," said Granny firmly. "Once you start paddlin' with the occult you start believing in spirits, and when you start believing in spirits you start believing in demons, and then before you know where you are you're believing in gods. And then you’re in trouble."

"But all them things exist,” said Nanny Ogg.

"That's no call to go believing in them. It only encourages 'em."
Anyway, back to Pratchett onstage. Granted, he's not a biblical scholar, or a professional philosopher (I'm wondering what he thinks "Einstein and Spinoza" thought about gods), but my heart still sank just a bit when he began discussing the Bible.
I have no truck whatsoever with Genesis. I was inoculated against the Christian -- the Judaic-Christian religion by reading the whole of the Old Testament through, in one go; well, apart from the "begats." And I thought, "If this is true, we are in the hands of a maniac!" But some of it made no ... there are two trees in the Garden of Eden ... go and read it someday, it'll do you good, and you'll find out. "Thou shalt not kill", but it's okay to go and kill the guys God tells you to kill. No, come on, I need something a little more definite from a deity. But I read the New Testament and I thought, once you realize that Saint Paul was -- well, basically, he should have been introduced to a good woman. So once you got rid of that, and of course ... by God, this is good red wine! ... [to the moderator] What's the one at the end?


PRATCHETT: No, not Acts!

MODERATOR: Revelation! The one at the end ...

PRATCHETT: Revelation! Mushroom dream, mushroom dream, recognized it, recognized it ... those tiny little pale brown ones. Jesus said the perfect things, which are basically "Love one another as you love yourself" ... "Do as you would be done by" ... The Golden Rule, which every worthwhile philosopher or mystic throughout the years has said. But somewhere in there is my delight.... I mean, I was a fan of G. K. Chesterton and still am, and he was a down-and-dirty Catholic convert, but I find it far more interesting and in a sense far more religiously interesting that a bunch of monkeys got down off trees and stopped arguing long enough to build this, to build that, to build everything. We're monkeys, and our heritage is in difficulty is to climb trees and throw shit at other trees. But actually, that's so much more interesting than being fallen angels. I think this is ... God help me if I ever become a Christian, because [to the audience] you lot would suffer, I can tell ya!

MODERATOR: You'd be a formidable one!

PRATCHETT: ... because, in fact, within the story of evolution is a story far more interesting than any in the Bible! It teaches us amazing things -- that stars are not important, there is nothing interesting about stars. Street lamps are very important, because they're so rare, as far as we know there's only a few million of them in the universe. And they were built by monkeys, who came up with philosophy, and gods, and this is so much more interesting, and it is so much more right!
... Well, that's enough, I think. Bearing in mind that Pratchett is obviously feeling his wine, and that he's playing to the audience, he shoulda stuck with Granny Weatherwax, and maybe the stuff in Hogfather about the function of stories. (Go read it someday, it'll do you good.) And where, by the way, did he get that bit about "fallen angels"? That's not what human beings are in Christian mythology. His dopey metaphor just doesn't work.

He's entitled to his opinion of the Old Testament, though it sounds to me as if he didn't really read the whole thing. Probably he read only Genesis, and you would think that a professional storyteller would have a more intelligent reaction to Genesis as story. This, again, is the benefit of being an atheist and reading books like the Bible as an atheist: if you read the Bible as a collection of books written over two thousand years ago by fallen monkeys, rather than as a god's memoirs, it takes on a different color. Not necessarily attractive morally, of course, but the same can be said about most world literature, from the Iliad and the Odyssey to the Bhagavad-Gita to Beowulf to Shakespeare to The Naked and the Dead. (True, the "begats" interrupt the flow of narrative, but it's okay to skip them, and are they any more tedious than the list of the Greek ships in the Iliad?) I'll agree, though, that the best inoculation against Christianity is a careful reading of the Bible.

Personally, I find it hard to understand how anyone could look at the violence that permeates the natural world (Darwin was particularly horrified by the parasitic Ichneumonidae), let alone the natural disasters that have devastated this planet recently, and not conclude that "we are in the hands of a maniac." But that's just me, apparently.

Ah, but the New Testament... I've mentioned before Jubal Harshaw's decision, in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, to pick on the Old Testament rather than the New, because it upsets people less. Notice that when he gets to the New Testament, Pratchett skips past the gospels to Paul, whom he dismisses with a really embarrassing cheap shot. (The best book I've read about Paul and Christianity -- and it's written by a Christian, mind you -- is The Cost of Authority: Manipulation and Freedom in the New Testament by Graham Shaw, published almost thirty years ago by Fortress Press.) Then he jumps to the final book in the New Testament, the Revelation, which he dismisses as a "mushroom dream"; hell, it's an easy target, even most Christians don't like the Revelation.

Finally Pratchett circles back to Jesus. He cherry-picks two "perfect things" Jesus said, one of which of course is a quotation from the Old Testament, "Love your neighbor as yourself." The other, the Golden Rule, is also a moral commonplace, and hardly requires mysticism to repeat; Jesus certainly didn't invent it himself. But what about the rest of what Jesus said? He didn't need to be "introduced to a good woman," since he had so many 'bad' ones following him around, tending to his every need, wiping their tears from his feet with their hair. He was a hellfire and damnation preacher and a faith healer, he taught his followers to turn their backs on their families, he taught that you should pluck out your eye if it leads you to sin, he extolled those who made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven, he taught the central doctrine of that mushroom dream the book of Revelation, that Judgment Day was at hand. The gospels have some interesting features as stories, but again, Pratchett seems not really to have read them. It really is a shoddy performance; maybe Pratchett should become a Christian, of the liberal Cafeteria variety.

Oddly, towards the end of the clip and of my partial transcription, he points out that we monkeys "came up with" gods, which I presume includes religions and in particular the Bible and other scriptures he considers so uninteresting. But Darwinian evolution is not a story; it's more of an anti-story, and Darwinian evolution does not hold that the stars aren't interesting or important; at most you can say that Darwinian evolution is not about the stars. (There's a very different branch of science devoted to stellar evolution, which works very differently.) Darwinian evolution doesn't consider lampposts especially interesting; it notoriously decenters human beings and our works, as heliocentric astronomy knocked the earth from the center of the universe. Whatever importance lampposts have is unrelated to their numbers; whatever importance we monkeys have is unrelated to Darwinian evolution. Pratchett, like so many self-styled champions of Darwin, is actually an exponent of the Great Chain of Being, which is all about human importance in the universe. (But hey, when you're a fan it doesn't matter what he said -- it just matters what you want to think he said!)

"There is grandeur in this view of life," Darwin wrote at the end of The Origin of Species. I agree, but it offers no palliative for the fear of death, no meaning of life for the anomic, no comfort for those who want to believe that they are, if not the Crown of Creation, then damn close to it. Recently I've been thinking about this passage from The Descent of Man (page 689 of the 2004 Penguin edition, quoted by Andre Pichot in The Pure Society [Verso, 2009].
For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs – as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
It's a good thing he felt that way, because of course Darwin is descended from that caricatured "savage." As are you and I and Pratchett. There's a strong misanthropic streak in many science cultists, which bears a striking resemblance to the misanthropic streak in many other religionists.

I'm not the arbiter of atheism, but it seems to me that one test of an atheist is his or her readiness (preferably well-informed) to see Jesus as not only a human being but even a not especially attractive one. When my fellow atheists tiptoe around the Man from Nazareth and extol a few of his pretty platitudes while ignoring the bulk of his teaching, something is wrong: they aren't as liberated from religious 'brainwashing' as they want to believe. But then, no one is ever really totally liberated.

Of course, Pratchett is neither a theologian nor a philosopher; nor is he the "genius" some of his fans think he is. As an atheist, he's a typical and familiar example of the Village Atheist stereotype. (Should I have called this post "I Am the Only Atheist in the Village"? Nah, save it for another day.) What he is, is an excellent storyteller and satirist, and I'll be sad when he stops writing. And the new Discworld book will be out in a week!