Greatless Illusion

The third book I read recently which resonated thematically with the previous two is one I have come somewhat late to given my inclinations.  But a new paperback edition was recently released and I considered buying it.  I hesitated as I was uncertain whether anything new or substantively unique was contained therein to make it worth having on my shelf.  I have other books along similar lines and while I am fond of the author, it seemed unlikely this book would offer anything not already covered.

Christopher Hitchens was a journalist and essayist and became one of our best commentators on current events, politics, and related subjects.  Even when I disagreed with him I have always found his arguments cogent and insightful and never less than solidly grounded on available fact.

So when he published a book of his views on religion, it seemed a natural addition to my library, yet I missed it when it first came out.  Instead, I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which I found useful and well-reasoned, but pretty much a sermon to one who needed no convincing.  Such books are useful for the examples they offer to underpin their arguments.

Such is the case with God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Hitchens’ extensive travels and his experiences in the face of conflict between opposing groups, often ideologically-driven, promised a surfeit of example and he did not fail to provide amply.

The title is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the feet of those with whom Hitchens had sizeable bones to pick.  In the years since its initial publication it has acquired a reputation, developed a set of expectations, and has become something of a cause celebré sufficient for people to take sides without having read it.  I found myself approaching the book with a set of expectations of my own and, with mild surprise, had those expectations undermined.

Yes, the book is a statement about the nature of religion as an abusive ideology—regardless of denomination, sect, theological origin—and offers a full range of examples of how conflicts, both between people and peoples, are generally made worse (or, more often than not, occur because of) by religious infusions into the situation.  It is in many ways a depressing catalog of misuse, misinterpretation, misstatement, misunderstanding, and sometimes misanthropy born out of religious conviction.  Hitchens analyzes the sources of these problems, charts some of the history, and gives us modern day examples.

But he tempers much of this by drawing a distinction between individuals and ideologies.

He also opens with a statement that in his opinion we shall never be rid of it.  This is quite unlike people like Dawkins who actually seem to feel humankind can be educated out of any need of religion.  Hitchens understood human nature all too well to have any hope that this was possible.

He does allow that possibly religion allows some good people to be better, but he does not believe religion makes anyone not already so inclined good.

By the end of the book, there will likely be two reactions.  One, possibly the more common, will be to dismiss much of his argument as one-sided.  “He overlooks all the good that has been done.”  It is interesting to me that such special pleading only ever gets applied consistently when religion is at issue.  In so much else, one or two missteps and trust is gone, but not so in religion, wherein an arena is offered in which not only mistakes but serious abuse can occur time and time again and yet the driving doctrine never called into question.  The other reaction will be to embrace the serious critique on offer, even the condemnations, and pay no attention to the quite sincere attempt to examine human nature in the grip of what can only be described as a pathology.

Because while Hitchens was a self-proclaimed atheist, he does take pains to point out that he is not talking about any sort of actual god in this book, only the god at the heart of human-made religions.  For some this may be a distinction without a difference, but for the thoughtful reader it is a telling distinction.  That at the end of it all, Hitchens see all—all—manifestations of gods through the terms of their religions as artifices.  And he wonders then why people continue to inflict upon themselves and each other straitjackets of behavior and ideology that, pushed to one extreme or another, seem to always result in some sort of harm, not only for the people who do not believe a given trope but for the believers themselves.

We are, being story-obsessed, caught in the amber of our narratives.  Per Mr. Thompson’s analysis of myth, we are never free of those stories—even their evocation for the purposes of ridicule bring us fully within them and determine the ground upon which we move.  The intractable differences over unprovable and ultimately unsubstantiated assumptions of religious dictate, per the history chronicled around the life Roger Smith, have left us upon a field of direst struggle with our fellows whose lack of belief often is perceived as a direct threat to a salvation we are unwilling ourselves to examine and question as valid, resulting in abuse and death borne out of tortured constructs of love.  Christopher Hitchens put together a bestiary of precedent demonstrating that treating as real the often inarticulate longings to be “right” in the sight of a god we ourselves have invented, too often leads to heartache, madness, and butchery.

The sanest religionists, it would seem by this testament, are those with the lightest affiliation, the flimsiest of dedications to doctrine.  They are the ones who can step back when the call to massacre the infidel goes out.

All of which is ultimately problematic due simply to the inexplicable nature of religion’s appeal to so many.

But it is, to my mind, an insincere devoteé who will not, in order to fairly assess the thing itself, look at all that has been wrought in the name of a stated belief.  Insincere and ultimately dangerous, especially when what under any other circumstance is completely wrong can be justified by that which is supposed to redeem us.

Monstrous Partiality

In keeping with the previous review, we turn now to a more modern myth, specifically that of our nation’s founding.  More specifically, one component which has from time to time erupted into controversy and distorted the civil landscape by its insistence on truth and right.

But first, a question:  did you know that once upon a time, in Massachussetts, it was illegal to live alone?

There was a law requiring all men and women to abide with families—either their own or others—and that no one, man or woman, was permitted to build a house and inhabit it by themselves.

John M. Barry details this and much more about early America which, to my knowledge, never makes it into history classes, at least not in primary or secondary schools, in his excellent book  Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.


Discussion of the Founding—and most particularly the Founding Fathers—centers upon the Revolutionary Era collection of savants who shaped what became the United States.  It is sometimes easy to forget that Europeans had been on these shores, attempting settlements, for almost two centuries by then.  It’s as if that period, encapsulated as it is in quaint myths of Puritans, Pocahontas, Squanto, John Smith, and Plymouth Rock, occupies a kind of nontime, a pre-political period of social innocence in which Individuals, whose personalities loom large yet isolated, like Greek Gods, prepared the landscape for our later emergence as a nation.  My own history classes I recall did little to connect the English Civil War to the Puritan settlements and even less to connect the major convulsions in English jurisprudence of that period to the the evolution of political ideas we tend to take for granted today.  In fact, it seems pains are taken to sever those very connections, as if to say that once here, on North American soil, what happened in Europe was inconsequential to our national mythos.

That illusion is shattered by Barry in this biography of not only one of the most overlooked and misunderstood Founders but of that entire morass of religious and political struggle which resulted in the beginnings of our modern understanding of the wall of separation between church and state.  More, he makes it viscerally real why  that wall not only came into being but had  to be.

If you learned about Roger Williams at all in high school, probably the extent of it was “Roger Williams was a Puritan who established the colony that became Rhode Island.  He contributed to the discussion over individual liberty.”  Or something like that.  While true, it grossly undervalues what Williams actually did and how important he was to everything that followed.

In a way, it’s understandable why this is the case.  Williams occupies a time in our history that is both chaotic and morally ambiguous.  We like to think differently of those who settled here than they actually were, and any deeper examination of that period threatens to open a fractal abyss of soul searching that might cast a shadow over the period we prefer to exalt.

But the seeds of Williams’ contribution were sown in the intellectual soil which to this day has produced a troubling crop of discontent between two different conceptions of what America is.

The Puritans (whom we often refer to as The Pilgrims) were religious malcontents who opposed the English church.  They had good reason to do so.  King James I (1566 – 1625) and then his son, Charles I (1600 – 1649), remade the Church of England into a political institution of unprecedented intrusive power, establishing it as the sole legitimate church in England and gradually driving out, delegitimizing, and anathematizing any and all deviant sects—including and often most especially the Puritans.  Loyalty oaths included mandatory attendance at Anglican services and the adoption of the Book of Common Prayer.  The reason this was such a big deal at the time was because England had become a Protestant nation under Queen Elizabeth I and everything James and Charles were doing smacked of Catholicism (or Romishness), which the majority of common folk had rejected, and not without cause.  The history of the religious whipsaw England endured in these years is a blood-soaked one.  How people prayed, whether or not they could read the Bible themselves, and their private affiliations to their religious conceptions became the stuff of vicious street politics and uglier national power plays.

So when we hear that the Pilgrims came to America in order to worship as they saw fit, we sympathize.  Naturally, we feel, everyone should be allowed to worship in their own way.  We have internalized the idea of private worship and the liberty of conscience—an idea that had no currency among the Puritans.

The Puritans were no more tolerant than the high church bishops enforcing Anglican conformity in England.  They thought—they believed—their view of christian worship was right and they had come to the New World to build their version of perfection.  A survey of the laws and practices of those early colonies gives us a picture of ideological gulags where deviation was treated as a dire threat, a disease, which sometimes required the amputation of the infected individual: banishment.

Hence the law forbidding anyone from living alone.  It was thought that in isolation, apart from people who could keep watch over you and each other, the mind’s natural proclivity to question would create nonconformity.

Conformity is sometimes a dirty word today.  We pursue it but we reserve the right to distance ourselves from what we perceive as intrusiveness in the name of conformity.  Among the Puritans, conformity was essential to bring closer the day of Jesus’ return.  Everyone had to be on the same page for that to occur.

(Which gave them a lot of work to do.  Not only did they have to establish absolute conformism among themselves, but they would at some point have to go back to England and overthrow the established—i.e. the King’s—order and convert their fellow Britons, and then invade the Continent and overthrow Catholicism, and all the while they had to go out into the wilderness of North America and convert all the Indians…but first things first, they needs must become One People within their own community—something they were finding increasingly difficult to do.)

Into this environment came Roger Williams and his family.  Williams was a Puritan.  But he also had a background as apprentice to one of the most formidable jurists in English history, Sir Edward Coke, the man who ultimately curtailed the power of the king and established the primacy of Parliament.  Coke was no Puritan—it’s a question if he was anything in terms of religious affiliation beyond a christian—but he was one of the sharpest minds and most consistent political theorists of his day.  He brought WIlliams into the fray where the boy saw first-hand how power actually worked.  He saw kings be petty, injustices imposed out of avarice, vice, and vengeance in the name of nobly-stated principles.  And, most importantly, he saw how the church was corrupted by direct involvement in state matters.

This is a crucial point of difference between Williams and later thinkers on this issue.  Williams was a devout christian.  What he objected to was the way politics poisoned the purity that was possible in religious observance.  He wanted a wall of separation in order to keep the state out of the church, not the other way around.  But eventually he came to see that the two, mingled for any reason, were ultimately destructive to each other.

Williams was an up-and-coming mover among the Puritans, but the situation for him and many others became untenable and he decamped to America in 1631, where he was warmly received by the governor of Massachussetts, John Winthrop.  In fact, he was eagerly expected by the whole established Puritan community—his reputation was that great—and was immediately offered a post.

Which he turned down.

Already he was thinking hard about what he had witnessed and learned and soon enough he came into conflict with the Puritan regime over matters of personal conscience.

What he codified eloquently was his observation that the worst abuses of religiously-informed politics (or politically motivated religion) was the inability of people to be objective.  A “monstrous partiality” inevitably emerged to distort reason in the name of sectarian partisanship and that this was destructive to communities, to conscience, to liberty.

For their part, the Puritans heard this as a trumpet call to anarchy.

The Massachussetts Puritans came very close to killing Williams.  He was forced to flee his home in the midst of a snowstorm while he was still recovering from a serious illness.  He was succored by the Indian friends he had made, primarily because he was one of the very few Europeans who had bothered to learn their language.  They gave him land, which eventually became Providence Plantation, and he attracted the misfits from all over.  Naturally, Massachussetts saw this as a danger to their entire program.  If there was a place where nonconformity could flourish, what then became of their City on the Hill and the advent toward which they most fervently worked?

The next several years saw Williams travel back and forth across the Atlantic to secure the charter for his colony.  He knew Cromwell and the others and wrote his most famous book, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience,
in 1644 right before returning to America to shepherd his new colony.  In this book for the first time is clearly stated the argument for a firm wall of separation.  It is the cornerstone upon which the later generation of Founders built and which today rests the history of religious freedom we take as a natural right.

But the struggle was anything but civil and the abuses to which Williams responded in his call for a “Liberty of conscience” are not the general picture we have of the quaint Pilgrims.

Barry sets this history out in vivid prose, extensively sourced research, and grounds the story in terms we can easily understand as applicable to our current dilemma.  One may wonder why Williams is not more widely known, why his contributions are obscured in the shadow of what came later.  Rhode Island was the first colony with a constitution that did not mention god and it was established for over fifty years before a church was built in Providence.

Williams himself was not a tolerant man.  He loathed Baptists and positively hated Quakers.  But he valued his principles more.  Perhaps he saw in his own intolerance the very reason for adoption of what then was not merely radical but revolutionary.

Light Fallen

I’ve read three books in tandem which are connected by subtle yet strong filaments.  Choosing which one to begin with has been a bit vexatious, but in the end I’ve decided to do them in order of reading.

The first is an older book, handed me by a friend who thought I would find it very much worth my while.  I did, not, possibly, for the reasons he may have thought I would.  But it grounds a topic in which we’ve been engaged in occasionally vigorous debate for some time and adds a layer to it which I had not expected.

William Irwin Thompson’s  The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light  is about myth.  It is also about history.  It is also about grinding axes and challenging paradigms.  The subtitle declares: Mythology, Sexuality & the Origins of Culture.  This is a lot to cover in a mere 270-some pages, but Mr. Thompson tackles his subject with vigor and wrestles it almost into submission.

His thesis is twofold.  The first, that Myth is not something dead and in the past, but a living thing, an aggregate form of vital memes, if you will, which recover any lost force by their simple evocation, even as satire or to be dismissed.  Paying attention to myth, even as a laboratory study, brings it into play and informs our daily lives.

Which means that myth does not have a period.  It is ever-present, timeless, and most subtle in its influence.

His other thesis, which goes hand in hand with this, is that culture as we know it is derived entirely from the tension within us concerning sex.  Not sex as biology, although that is inextricably part of it, but sex as identifier and motivator. That the argument we’ve been having since, apparently, desire took on mythic power within us over what sex means, how it should be engaged, where it takes us has determined the shapes of our various cultural institutions, pursuits, and explications.

It all went somehow terribly wrong, however, when sex was conjoined with religious tropism and homo sapiens sapiens shifted from a goddess-centered basis to a god-centered one and elevated the male above the female.  The result has been the segregation of the female, the isolation of the feminine, and the restriction of intracultural movement based on the necessity to maintain what amounts to a master-slave paradigm in male-female relationships.

Throughout all this “fallen” power play, ancient myths concerning origins and the latent meanings of mutual apprehensions between men and women (and misapprehensions) have continued to inform the dialogue, often twisted into contortions barely recognizable one generation to the next but still in force.

There is much here to consider.  Thompson suggests the rise of the great monotheisms is a direct result of a kind of cultural lobotomy in which the Father-God figure must be made to account for All, subjugating if not eliminating the female force necessary for even simple continuation.  The necessity of women to propagate the species, in this view, is accommodated with reluctance and they are, as they have been, shoved into cramped confines and designated foul and evil and unclean in their turn, even as they are still desired.  The desire transforms the real into the ideal and takes on the aspects of a former goddess worship still latent in mythic tropes.

Certainly there is obvious force to this view.

The book is marred by two problems.  I mentioned the grinding of axes. Time was published originally in 1981 and, mostly in the first third, but sprinkled throughout, is an unmasked loathing of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.  He takes especial aim at E.O. Wilson for promulgating certain reductive explanations for prehistoric cultural evolution based wholly on biological determinants.  Thompson’s prejudice is clear that he wants even early homo sapiens to be special in its cultural manifestations and he derides attempts at exclusively materialist explanations.  The fact that E.O,. Wilson himself has moved away from these earlier “purely” biological considerations one hopes would result in an updating.

But interestingly, part of Thompson’s rejection of such early modeling comes from an apparent belief in Race Memory.  Not, as I might find plausible, race memory as deeply-entrenched memes, but apparently as some undiscovered aspect of our genome.  He never quite comes out claims that such race memory is encoded in our DNA, but he leaves little room for alternative views.

Hence, he asserts, the genuine power of myth, since it is carried not only culturally, but quasi-biologically, as race memory.  Which we ignore at our peril.

He does not once mention Joseph Campbell, whose work on the power of myth I think goes farther than most in explicating how myth informs our lives, how myth is essentially meaning encoded in ideas carried in the fabric of civilization.  He does, however, credit Marija Gimbutas, whose work on goddess cultures extending back before the rise of Sumer and the constellation of civilizations commonly recognized as the “birth” of civilization was attacked by serious allegations of fraud in order to undermine her legitimacy and negate her thesis that early civilizations were certainly more gender equal if not outright female dominated.  (Just a comment on the so-called “birth” of civilization: it has been long remarked that ancient Sumeria appeared to “come out of nowhere”, a full-blown culture with art and some form of science.  But clearly common sense would tell us that such a “birth” had to be preceded by a long pregnancy, one which must have contained all the components of what emerged.  The “coming out of nowhere” trope, which sounds impressive on its face, would seem to be cultural equivalent of the virgin birth myth that has informed so many civilizations and myth cycles since…)

My complaint, if there is any, is that he undervalues the work of geneticists, biologists, and sociometricians, seeking apparently to find a causation that cannot be reduced to a series of pragmatic choices taken in a dramatically changing ecosystem or evolutionary responses to local conditions.  Fair enough, and as far as it goes, I agree.  Imagination, wherever and whenever it sprang into being, fits badly into the kind of steady-state hypothesizing of the harder sciences when it comes to how human society has evolved.  But to dismiss them as irrelevant in the face of an unverifiable and untestable proposition like Race Memory is to indulge in much the same kind of reductionist polemic that has handed us the autocratic theologies of “recorded history.”

Once Thompson moves out of the speculative field of, say, 8,000 B.C.E. and older and into the period wherein we have records, his attack on cherished paradigms acquires heft and momentum and the charm of the outsider.  (His mention, however, of Erich von Daniken threatens to undo the quite solid examination of the nature of “ancient” civilizations.)  It is easy enough to see, if we choose to step out of our own prejudices, how the march of civilization has been one of privileging male concerns and desires over the female and diminishing any attempt at egalitarianism in the name of power acquisition.  The justification of the powerful is and probably has always been that they are powerful, and therefore it is “natural” that they command.  Alternative scenarios suffer derision or oxygen deprivation until a civilization is old enough that the initial thrill and charm of conquest and dominance fades and more abstruse concerns acquire potency.

But the value of The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light  may be in its relentless evocation of institutional religion as a negation of the spiritual, as if to say that since we gave up any kind of natural and sane attitude toward sexuality and ignored the latent meaning in our mythologies we have been engaged in an ongoing and evermore destructive program to capture god in a bottle and settle once and for all what it is we are and should be.  When one looks around at the religious contention today, it is difficult if not impossible to say it is not all about men being in charge and women being property.  Here and there, from time to time, we hear a faint voice of reason crying out that this is a truly stupid thing to kill each other over.