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« Stones Memories | Main | Sex, and the Sexes »

April 15, 2008

Quote for the Day

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

From John Gray: "Repressing [religion] is like repressing sex, a self-defeating enterprise ... The attempt to eradicate religion only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms."



posted by Michael at April 15, 2008


"For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future."

You mean all the atheists in the media and academia are still wondering if religion has a future? Is this 1878 or 2008? First time? Sure. Yawn.

"The abrupt shift in the perception of religion is only partly explained by terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition,and western opinion has accepted their self-image."

Martyrs are those who are persecuted and killed by others for a faith in God, not people who are suicidal and homocidal. And nobody but the incompetent media thinks or promotes that view. Next.

"In the 20th century, when it commanded powerful states and mass movements, it helped engender totalitarianism."

Nooo, it was atheism that gave rise to communism and Nazism. Nice try, though.

"There is an inheritance of anthropocentrism, the ugly fantasy that the Earth exists to serve humans, which most secular humanists share. There is the claim of religious authorities, also made by atheist regimes, to decide how people can express their sexuality, control their fertility and end their lives, which should be rejected categorically."

Oh my Lord, this man is insane! He's an earth-worshipper! He thinks that plants are more important than people with God-given souls! Of course God made the earth for man, and not vice versa.

You want to know what's coming down the pike with shills like this? See

Also, as far as "rules" go, nobody is compelled to follow a religion anymore (except earth-worship). So if I agree to the religious beliefs of a particular religion, those rules become mine by choosing. End of debate.

This author is a nutcase, and incredibly ignorant of the entire issue. He's also an earth worshipper. I guess the tax slaves in the UK are now being softened up for a new "green religion" to replace those old ideas of Christianity and atheism. I mean, atheism was invented by totalitarians. And the new "green religion" will be run by the same bunch of totalitarian lunatics. Heaven help us all!

The media these days is simply trash. Its just time for old Uncle Joe Stalin to change hats, so they scurry to their keyboards, like good little toadies. This makes me so sick, Ugh!

Posted by: BIOH on April 15, 2008 1:57 AM

The reason for this is pretty simple:

God is the father.

Societies that try to overturn this destroy themselves.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 15, 2008 8:05 AM

On the other hand, John Gray once said to me that the reason he favored state-established religion, like the Church of England, was that the close association between religion and government results in people taking religion a lot less seriously. In other words, you can't kill the damn thing but you can stop it from doing so much damage. ... But this was 25 years ago. John hasn't said anything this wise for more than a decade.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 15, 2008 10:01 AM

Michael, speaking of quotes, about a year or two ago you reviewed a "Book of Quotes", and I can not find the post. What was the name of that book again?

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 15, 2008 10:24 AM

the close association between religion and government results in people taking religion a lot less seriously.

Examples: Saudi Arabia, Iran.

Posted by: PA on April 15, 2008 10:34 AM

I think that the twentieth century, and, especially post-WWII, saw a rise in religions. Feminism, Libertarianism, Earth-First-ism, Veganism, Afro-Centrism, Socialism (OK, earlier than 20th cent. but is changed in that century), etc.

And, yes, I consider all of these religions. They all have gosepels, dogma and followers.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 15, 2008 10:39 AM

I think people are misunderstanding the tone of that article. It was a (very qualified) defense of religion, and a criticism of the New Atheists who are seeking to suppress it or wipe it out altogether.

Lester Hunt: I know that there is an au courant trope that established religion makes people take it less seriously - but that's only really been true since the late 19th century, when the steep decline in popular faith had been under way for some time. It's not a universally valid truth. I say this as a believing Catholic.

Posted by: alias clio on April 15, 2008 10:51 AM

I'm reminded of an article I read from waaaaaaay back.

I am something of (what I would call) a casual atheist—I don't believe in god but I'm cool with the premise of religion. Just not most of current examples of such.

Anyway, this article put some words to some unformed ideas I'd been having and it, indeed, sounds like it has the same gist as the one Michael posted above:

why should a scientist show any degree of acknowledgment, much less friendliness, toward topics that are so big or mysterious that they can almost certainly never be addressed experimentally?

Some answers are: Because to pretend to be certain that such big questions don’t exist is to be dishonest. Because noticing what I’ll call “permanent mysteries” evokes wonder. And most important, because people are afraid to die, and they sometimes find hope in the unresolved status of the biggest questions. Take away that hope and you hand victory to whatever creep can give it back.

Link to the article

Posted by: Jonathan Schnapp on April 15, 2008 11:34 AM

Freedom of religion in the US sure hasn't stopped some of the more degraded/grostesque forms of religion here (the headlining Fundamentalist Church of JCoLDS, Scientology, Jim Jones's Peoples Temple, to name a few).

The difference between religions and cults are the number of adherents. Its not whether the dogma is acceptable to most of society. Its not whether it makes scientific sense. Its how many people support the fable.

Posted by: Julie Brook on April 15, 2008 12:08 PM

Not true, Julie Brook. There are one or two definite indicators that a particular faith is a "cult" rather than a religion. The most important is secretiveness - not just about the administration of the cult (that can be true of some bona fide religions too) - but about its core beliefs. Cults will often hide their beliefs in a shroud of secrecy and refuse to answer questions about them except to would-be initiates. What legitimate religion refuses to tell people what it thinks of as the Good News?

And cults also try to create a "wall of separation" between their members and the outside world, including telling them not to tell their families about where they are or what they are doing.

Of course, any legitimate religion can have or acquire cult-like tendencies in some of its sub-groups, but really, the two are not the same.

Posted by: alias clio on April 15, 2008 12:36 PM

John Gray's a funny one. When I first read him 15 or 20 years ago I thought he was great -- clear, insightful, subtle. Then something started to go off in his writing and thinking ... It started to feel like he was going through some personal changes or something, and that his thinking had become nothing more than a way of rationalizaing whatever he was up to emotionally. Funny to watch someone who seemed solid for a bit become a total loose canon. I couldn't even make out the point of article I linked to, not really. But I did like the two sentences I quoted from it ... Why are some people so determined to battle the feelings and beliefs and experiences that so many other people have? Their battle does have a kind of bluestocking, thought-policey prissiness to it (as well as, as many have pointed out, its own kind of religious qualities). Perhaps religious feelings in a vague sense are as thoroughgoing a part of life as sexual feelings are -- why fight that? Let alone try to eradicate 'em? And of course total repression (or eradication) of this dimension of experience will only guarantee that it'll come back in a different and stupider (and generally more hostile) form.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2008 1:00 PM

Ian -- Here's the quotation-collection book I love so much. Not just a bunch of great quotes, but a real life of reading and thinking shaping the whole thing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2008 1:09 PM

AliasClio, up until the mid 20th century, the common dictionary definition of cult was "traditionally, any form of worship or ritual observance". Present day definitions of cults can list dozens of identifying features. One of the favorite differences between cults and religions used by supporters of traditional religions are extreme beliefs and practices. That way, they can say that Islam, with over a billion adherents, is a cult. Other defining factors of cults include veneration of a human leader or leaders, absolutist ideology, members are not allowed to criticize nor read information critical of religious... excuse me, cult leaders, doctrine or organization. Sounds like a lot of traditional religions I'm familiar with. You picked secretiveness and separation as the most defining features of a cult, in your opinion. I'll pick extreme beliefs as the defining feature. Which would make any group of religious fundamentalists a cult. Which they are.

Posted by: Julie Brook on April 15, 2008 1:28 PM

Alias Clio: "And cults also try to create a "wall of separation" between their members and the outside world, including telling them not to tell their families about where they are or what they are doing."

That's what ANY religion has to do before it's widely enough accepted. Religions are cults writ large; the things you've just pointed out vary from cult to cult based on society's perception of them.

"What legitimate religion refuses to tell people what it thinks of as the Good News?" That question is slightly skewed against your initial point there, that cults won't answer direct questions about core beliefs. Catholics are pretty tough to pin down on some core beliefs too, for example. They've just had a lot more time to build up a canon of responses to deflect those probing questions in such a way that most people will assume the question's been answered. But keep at it and you'll get to some variant of "god works in mysterious ways."

Posted by: i, squub on April 15, 2008 1:53 PM

Julie Brook and squub: No, and no. Julie B. is right that before the mid-20th century, the word "cult" had a broader definition than it does now. Very well: but since then it has acquired a pejorative and very specific set of associations that cannot be suitably applied to religions in general, in spite of your attempt to link the two together. If you want to dismiss all religion, fine; but what you are attempting to do is a form of "begging the question", i.e. assuming the truth of a proposition in order to prove it.

"That begs the question" is an appropriate reply when a circular argument is used within one syllogism. That is, when the deduction contains a proposition that assumes the very thing the argument aims to prove; in essence, the proposition is used to prove itself, a tactic which in its simplest form is not very persuasive. For example here is an attempt to prove that Paul is telling the truth:
Suppose Paul is not lying when he speaks.
Paul is speaking.
Therefore, Paul is telling the truth.

Substitute this:
Suppose all religions are cults and that cults are a Bad Thing.
Hinduism is a religion.
Therefore, Hinduism is a cult and a Bad Thing.

That, in effect, is what you have said in your last comment.

And squub, you too are mistaken. Many religions develop organically, as it were, and never have to face a period of secrecy and seclusion because they have never been faced with hostility and the risk of extermination. Christianity began in secret because it was faced with that possibility - but when push came to shove its adherents declared their beliefs openly. Scientology - for example - has no such excuse. No one wants to wipe it out for being a religion; it does, however, have a few enemies who want to crush it for being a cult...I won't try to defend this, but there is a difference.

If you had a child who decided to convert to Catholicism, for instance, she might withdraw from you for a time - but her fellow-Catholics would not encourage this behaviour and would try to reconcile you (unless they belong to a cult, too!), even if you show that you are categorically opposed to their faith. But if she had joined the Moonies, or the Jim Jones group, she would certainly not be encouraged to speak to you about it unless she thought she could "bring you in" too.

Please believe me; this isn't just a matter of whether you are hostile to religion or not. It's sometimes a critical issue when it comes to determining whether a relative is in real danger, or just finding a new commitment.

Your approach to the matter would almost certainly exclude anything, anywhere, that encourages a strong commitment to a way of life, even if it involved ballet or playing football.

Final note: any human passion, any at all, can bring out the worst in us. Or the best.

Posted by: alias clio on April 15, 2008 3:03 PM

MB, Thanks. That is what I was looking for.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 15, 2008 3:30 PM

Ah, but Clio, I never said that all cults were a bad thing. And I never said that all religions were a bad thing. I said that religions were cults. And that members of some mainstream religions defined cultists as extremists so that they could avoid being labeled cultists themselves.
Then, in the same way that you grabbed onto one aspect of a cult, I picked a different one, and made an equally sweeping statement.

I have a real problem with your statement "Of course, any legitimate religion can have or acquire cult-like tendencies in some of its sub-groups, but really, the two are not the same"?
What makes a religion legitimate? Number of adherents? Then we're back to my original observation, the only difference between religion and cult is size. Its age? Then why aren't wiccans, pagans, etc universally recognized as religions?

Oh, I get it - if its Judeo-Christian, or represents more than 10% of the world population, its a legitimate religion. Otherwise its a splinter group, or maybe a cult. Heh.

Posted by: Julie Brook on April 15, 2008 4:23 PM

Look, Ms Brook, I can't say why Wicca and pseudo-pagans are defined as "cults" by some people, in the pejorative sense of the word. I think they are idiots, if you want the truth - but not cultists. They have no depth, no rootedness, and no soul - but they are not "cults" as I understand the term.

Please stop making nonsense of what I said here. I didn't say that either numbers or being "Judeo-Christian" had anything to do with whether a particular faith is a cult or not. I am trying to separate faiths like that of the Moonies, the Scientologists, the Rev. Jim Jones, the Temple of the Sun, or Heaven's Gate, from those that make their creed and their membership available to anyone who is interested in finding out. We - at least I - am speaking of a legal, not a moral or an anthropological distinction, here. And the legal distinction is important: it is one that can save people from throwing away their lives and their money on charlatans who do often do not believe their own lives. You appear to wilfully misunderstand what I am trying to say here, no doubt out of a general distaste for organized religion. Very well - as I said, go ahead and feel that distaste - but there is still a difference between a Hindu and a Heaven's Gater.

Posted by: alias clio on April 15, 2008 6:15 PM

Micheal- Here's a video that pokes fun at the artform that is movie trailers, a topic I remember you commenting on once (I believe you predicted it may soon eclipse the actual movie, or something along those lines).

Also, I believe I read somewhere that the movie Cloverfield had it's trailer produced prior to the movie.

Posted by: bdr on April 15, 2008 6:48 PM

correction: "believe their own lives" should be "believe their own lies"

Posted by: alias clio on April 15, 2008 7:44 PM

But Ms Clio (and really, there's no need to be formal, feel free to call me Julie or JB), I don't have a distaste for organized religion, I only have a distaste for people who set their religion up as being better than another's, or set themselves up as better than others because of their religion (and I am not implying that you are one of those people).

When a religious leader commits illegal acts, or engourages his/her followers to commit illegal acts, then they should be prosecuted. But that doesn't necessarily invalidate the religion. Should Catholicism be scorned because a higher percentage of their religious leaders are pederasts than other religions? Of course not. Yes, the heaven's gaters and Jim Jones were whackos, and no one wants their children caught up within a group like that. I grant you that. However, the Hindus, Catholics, Hasidim, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists all have their own varying degree of cultishness on the spectrum. What makes these groups religions rather than cults?

Posted by: Julie Brook on April 15, 2008 8:55 PM

I have said already that I think numbers have nothing to do with what makes a cult a cult, and that investigators have a definition which works quite well as a practical tool in warning individuals and families. Yet you keep insisting that numbers are what makes some people perceive a religious group as a cult and then objecting to it on the grounds that their perception is false.

I don't know what to say, really: you refuse to accept my explanation of what makes people see certain groups as "cults" and others merely as weird aspects of religion.

And it is eccentric, to say the least, to insist that people are unfair in believing that their own faith is superior - i.e. truer - than others. If they did not believe this, then they would not be believers at all in any real sense of the word.

It is also untrue that a higher proportion of Catholic leaders are "pederasts" than those of other faiths. First,the majority of the leaders accused in the recent scandals were not pederasts at all; they were sexual predators whose prey was adolescent males, not male children. (Not that this excuses their conduct, but it casts a different light on the nature of the problem.) Second, scandals in other faiths, esp. the various protestant faiths in the US, have simply not been reported with the same consistency, or at all, partly because they constitute a huge variety of groups and are not perceived as being aspects of a single phenomenon. Here's a citation:
The mainstream media has all but ignored the recent Associated Press report that the three major insurance companies for Protestant Churches in America say they typically receive 260 reports each year of minors being sexually abused by Protestant clergy, staff, or other church-related relationship
Responding to heavy media scrutiny, the Catholic Church has reported that since 1950, 13,000 “credible accusations” have been brought against Catholic clerics (about 228 per year.) The fact that this number includes all credible accusations, not just those that have involved insurance companies, and still is less than the number of cases in Protestant churches reported by just three insurance companies, should be making front page of The New York Times and the network evening news. It’s not. See link:,2933,286153,00...
And here's another link from what will no doubt seem to you a less compromised source:

Finally, if you want to use the words "cult" and "religion" interchangeably, no one will try to stop you! But it seems to me that you would lose a degree of precision in meaning if you did so. And BTW, I don't think I've ever heard anyone refer to Wicca or reconstituted paganism as "cults".

Posted by: alias clio on April 16, 2008 12:32 AM

Whoops, forgot the link ...

Posted by: bdr on April 16, 2008 3:16 AM

"Why are some people so determined to battle the feelings and beliefs and experiences that so many other people have?" Michael, Do you really want to say, "Why on earth would somebody be so foolish as to try to convince the majority that to change their minds?" Isn't that what this amounts to? Why would a religious opinion be any different from an ethical or political one in this respect?

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 16, 2008 8:49 AM

Agree with Clio that the coverage of the priestly sex scandal has been distorted, to say the least. Not only has the fact that the majority of the abusers were gay men with a taste for teenagers, not pedophiles preying on the pre-pubescent, been elided over, the problematic place of the Irish in all this has been largely ignored. But those "nuances" don't fit with the fashionable bigotry of anti-Catholicism today.

The main reason behind the Catholic sex scandals is the change in vocations for the priesthood that began in the sixties. Seminaries began to lose students representative of the general Catholic population, and only retained those who had, shall we say, special reasons for wanting to become priests. It was after this change that "priest" came to be synonymous with "homosexual", in particular "inadequate semi-closeted homosexual". It was the sixties gen of priests (and after) that have generated most of the abuses that have so damaged the Church.

The Church's sex scandal is not a pedophilia scandal, it's a homosexual scandal. Good luck trying to point that out!

(The above is just my view, BTW, not Clio's.)

Posted by: PatrickH on April 16, 2008 9:54 AM

Lester -- Always good to be reminded of how important it is to some people to impose their opinions, tks. It's a real force to be reckoned with, god knows. The funny thing in this case (IMHO, of course) is the whole "opinion" matter. I suspect that for many people religion (in a large vague sense) isn't a matter of opinion. It's a perfectly-evident, fact-of-life dimension of experience -- the religious dimension. What's it all about? Why do you bother? How to explain beauty and art? Why should anyone care about the past or the future? Why does pain hurt so damn much? The realms of thought, feeling and imagination where questions like those take you isn't some made-up place, it's as basic to life as air, the Grand Canyon, water, other people, etc.

(In my own case, the existence of the religious dimension isn't remotely like a matter of opinion. It's a more basic fact of life than the weather or my boss's mood is. Was it Teilhard de Chardin who had some great line about life not being a matter of physical beings occasionally having spiritual experiences, but of spiritual beings having physical experiences? Works for me -- and not as an expression of an opinion but as a description of life as I've encountered it.)

Aligning with an organized religion may in some cases have something to do with opinion and taste and such. But the basic fact that life has its mysterious and marvelous elements doesn't. That's why the proselytizing atheists look so hilariously clueless to me. As smart as they are, if they really don't recognize that life has what we might as well call a religious dimension, then they've as much as declared themselves stunted people unworthy of being paid much attention to.

My own eensie contribution to the anthrpology/philosophy of religion is that one thing religions -- with their mishmash of myth, stories, characters, god-panoplies, philosophies, self-help tips, etc -- do for people is enable them to openly acknowledge, compare notes about, and discuss the religious-dimension aspect of experience.

First, of course, you have to accept that such a thing as a religious dimension is a fact ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 16, 2008 11:33 AM

I like your view of religion Michael, and share it. But if all religion was about was acknowledging the mysterious and marvelous in life--or was simply accepted as a mishmash of myth, stories, characters, etc.--there wouldn't be much of a problem. It's pretty obvious that an atheist like Philip Pullman, for example, is all on board with accepting the mysterious and marvelous in life.

It's the bureaucratic superstructures, the hierarchies, the "thou-shalt-nots" that humans have built upon the religious impulse that piss some of us off.

Posted by: Steve on April 16, 2008 12:26 PM

Michael, I am currently reading "The Luminous Ground", the final volume in Christopher Alexander's magnum opus, The Nature of Order. He spends a great deal of time (worthwhile time) making your point above about religious experience. It is this dimension of life that the notorious New Atheists miss completely with their attacks on religion (though Sam Harris is a noticeable exception). This dimension is probably what most religious people mean when they talk about "faith", not assent to some set of propositions.

Great book by a great mind. Sigh. I love me some C. Alexander.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 16, 2008 12:27 PM

I feel compelled to jump in here one more time to comment that if you haven't actually read some of the books in question -- Dawkin's "The God Delusion," Dennet's "Breaking the Spell" -- you might take the time to do so before saying things like, "if they really don't recognize that life has what we might as well call a religious dimension, then they've as much as declared themselves stunted people unworthy of being paid much attention to." Those books recognize that very much, and they do so pointedly (as does Sam Harris, as has already been pointed out, at least in "The End of Faith.") Certainly Dennett goes deeper into that subject than Dawkins, but they both address it, and Dawkins addressed it also in one of his earlier books, "Unweaving the Rainbow." Can't comment on the Hitchens thing as that guy annoys me and I don't much care what he has to say (at this point,) but this made up "new atheists" thing is quickly turning into a strawman (if it ever wasn't one to begin with,) the way so many people characterize what these people are saying with only a surface investigation of it, if that. All of these guys recognize and acknowledge that this thing you're calling a religious dimension exists; it's just a question, for them, of what those sensations and feelings signify (or do not signify.)

Posted by: i, squub on April 16, 2008 1:52 PM


(I'm spending too much time commenting here, too.)

There is a really dismissive tone to both Dawkins and Dennett when they talk about religion. I mean, just look at the titles of their books: religion is a "spell" that needs to be "broken", God is a "delusion". Dennett, IMO, seems to have no sense at all of the mysteries of life and of consciousness. I mean by this that Dennett seems to have no religious part to his mind, and therefore no ability to engage religious people from the inside, so to speak. Karl Popper once said that about Rudolf, great guy, lots of great ideas, but no spark in him of wonder at the oddity of things. Dennet is tone-deaf to religion, and no token statements about "awe" or "mystery" can hide that fact.

Now Dawkins is admittedly a different case, what with his air of the Anglican divine sneering at Low Church types in perfectly formed sentences. He does seem to have a sense of the mysterious, but he also seems to think that only High Churchers like himself can speak about it with authority. Dawkins simply refuses to recognize that the religious sense that he himself possesses is present in anyone explicitly religious! That's a blindness born of lack of charity, not the blindness of an intrinsically narrow mind like Dennett's. But it's blindness all the same.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 16, 2008 3:16 PM

I realize I just said that Daniel Dennett is "tone-deaf" to religion and "blind" to it as well.

Sigh. I'll narrow my criticism and say he's "tone-blind". That still sums him up in my book.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 16, 2008 3:20 PM

"One man's theology is another's belly laugh!"
-Robert Heinlein

Posted by: Brutus on April 18, 2008 1:34 PM

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