May 31, 2007

Some Paragraphs from Berman on Qutb

Paul Berman, author of the splendid Terror and Liberalism, has an important essay in The New Republic (subscription only, methinks, but try the middle link) on the retreat of many Western intellectuals from defending the free inquiry and expression of liberal thinkers against Islamist thugs. The whole thing is well worth reading and pondering, but this bit on ideofact's old friend Sayyid Qutb is worth quoting:

Qutb, even in translation, commands a prose style of his own, which is typically serene and discursive, and nonetheless capable of sulfurous outpourings. He has the advantage of a background in literary criticism, which allows him to comment easily on the Qur'an and its style and mood. Most of all he has the advantage of the Qur'an, which occupies his attention. Qutb shows no embarrassment at all in noting the seventh-century barbarities whenever they seem apropos--the cruel amputations and other punishments ordained by huddud, the penal code, which he carefully discusses ("In case of a third or fourth theft, scholars have different views as to what is cut off," and so forth). The barbarous passages add a peculiar thrill to his writings, a frisson of the weird and the forbidden that seems all the more powerful because his tone of voice never changes: the tone of a man speaking with tranquility and confidence about things that are cosmically true.

And Qutb is, not least, a writer capable of summoning up the passions of hatred. He rains mighty blows upon the Jews of ancient Arabia. He scrupulously acknowledges that, here and there, the Qur'an contains passages that show compassion or kindliness to this or that individual Jew, but he prefers the other, more numerous passages: the descriptions of Jewish treachery and enmity during Muhammad's years in Medina, which in Qutb's estimation represent the eternal Jewish trait. In Qutb's commentaries (just as in Said Ramadan's Al-Muslimun, according to Hamel), you stumble here and there on references to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in a simple display of the continuing influence of Nazi and Nazi-like influences from Europe, even in the period after Nazism had been defeated; and in a simple display, likewise, of Qutb's reformism, to use the right word--his willingness to interpret the ancient texts on the basis of modern ideas. Not every modern idea is a good one, after all; nor every reform, a forward step.

Elsewhere, Berman notes that Qutb, who earlier in his life wrote romantic poetry with an apocalyptic vein, retained this outlook in his Islamist writings:

...he pictured the entire world hurtling toward a catastrophic crisis, which he interpreted along paranoid and apocalyptic lines. His vision of the impending collapse of both the West and the communist East Bloc, his vision of an Islamic revolutionary vanguard establishing somewhere an Islamic state and using it to export the Islamic revolution to the Muslim world and then to everywhere else, his vision of the Qur'anic utopia to come--all this was fairly wild: a grandiose version of al-Banna's already pop-eyed and Mussolinian idea about resurrecting the Islamic Empire.

Also worth noting that Tariq Ramadan argues that al Qaeda follows Qutb fairly closely--I used to have a commenter named Abu Noor al-Irlandee who argued that no such connection existed. I suppose it's good to see that there's one thing Ramadan and I agree on...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:56 PM | Comments (4)

May 28, 2007

Phony as a $1,000,000 bill

A smiling woman approached the eight year old and me earlier this evening in Old Town Alexandria, and offered us a preview of the new million dollar bill. It looks quite genuine -- for some reason, they chose Grover Cleveland to grace it (I would have picked James Garfield) -- and the eight year old was happy to have it. I think like all boys he has a penchant for collecting useless bits of junk, and investing them with his own meanings which, in this case, represent a definite improvement.

The million dollar bill asks the million dollar question, whether one will get into heaven, and then sets certain benchmarks for exclusion. It warns that Jesus said, "Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart," suggesting that, let's say a junior high school boy (though not a girl) checking out his female classmates at a school dance is a thought crime sufficiently heinous to deny him life everlasting.

The bill directs recipients to visit Way of the Master Radio, which sells fine instructional products that suggest one can win any debate with an atheist. "You do NOT need to know every apologetic argument. You do NOT need to know everything about evolution. You do NOT need to know everything about religious history." Well, of course.

Some things are beyond debate, belief in unprovable assertions among them. But selling ignorance as a debating strategy is a sin far worse than having the hots for some junior high school cutey. I should add that the small minority of us who are passionately interested in religious history, evolution and apologetics (that may well be just me) will not be saved by such bullshit.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:29 PM | Comments (0)

May 24, 2007

Second coming

Via the Corner comes this interesting Web site, asking scholars to offer

explicatory suppositions and deductions regarding the mores of Mahdism and its benefits, through their analytical articles.

The conference welcomes scientific research, which analyzes the culture of Mahdism in correspondence with the era of social and human sciences, other religions, and civilizations.

The Mahdi is the redeemer of Islam, the figure who, alongside Jesus Christ, returns to earth to usher in a new paradise. The Mahdi is not, I believe, mentioned by name (or rather, by the word Mahdi) in the Qur'an; Shi'ites identify the Mahdi with the 12th "occultated" imam, Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Ali, who disappeared shortly after the death of his father in the ninth century.

I think I should like to address this topic:

B- Theoretical issues:

1. Mahdism utopia (basics, features, capacities, comparative assessment and ….)

...or maybe this one, also from theoretical issues:

5. Mahdism and humans rights (humans’ dignity, the right of destiny defining, rights of minorities, rights of women and …)

I am certainly not a Shi'ite (I am not much of anything, when it comes to that), so I do not share a belief in the imminence or even possibility of the re-appearance or second coming of a boy who died (or disappeared) more than 1,000 years ago. But let us assume that a figure appeared who was recognized as such by the faithful: The Mahdi would certainly disappoint them. Religious figures who regard themselves as fulfilling prophecies tend to deviate so much from the expectations of their followers that the result is schism, or the birth of new religions altogether. Before he was he Buddha, Siddhartha was a Hindu holy man; Jesus said he came to fulfill the law and the prophets, though not many of his co-religionists shared his opinion; Muhammad was persuaded (and tried to persuade) the Jews of Medina that his prophecies were their religion.

Perhaps, at the 12th Imam's return, he would say, "Democracy, whiskey, sexy," admonish the faithful to go have a few beers and sleep in the next day, and then we'll all have a long talk about how we're going to measure the justness of our society by how emancipated our women are, how well we treat our Jewish and other minorities, by how many gay marriages we celebrate and how enthusiastically we embrace modernity, and how aggressive we are in undoing the centuries of superstitious nonsense.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:23 PM | Comments (0)

Culture police


The above picture, from the Miss Universe site, has created quite a stir in Miss Thailand's native country, according to the Bangkok Post:

A National Dress? This question in bold letters was placed under the picture of a Thai beauty queen who is vying for the Miss Universe crown in Mexico City.

The picture, splashed on the front page of a Thai-language newspaper, shows 19-year-old Miss Thailand, Fahroong Yutitham, in a colourful, navel-displaying costume that has the ethnic Hmong look, complete with Hmong-like headgear and silver ornaments.

Such a costume, the caption states, has stirred many to question whether it should be called a national Thai dress or not. The answer was quickly forthcoming from the culture police.

The commentary, by Sanitsuda Ekachia, is eminently sensible. It is perhaps no longer amazing to regard something so mundane as a beauty contest as an expression of tolerance and secularism--ten years ago it would have been--but nevertheless it's gratifying to see Ekachia so ardently defend Miss Thailand's costume choice against the morals police. Her column also contains this bit of wisdom:

Women also greatly suffer from the Thai-ness rubbish which mandates virginity as an indispensable quality of good Thai women. This is why women who are raped or face unplanned pregnancies get social condemnation instead of help. Or why divorced women or widows are considered tainted goods.

A Thai beauty queen in an ethnic dress? Why not? Only when we can equate Thai-ness with cultural diversity, can we hope for an open and more humane society.

And for a world safe for bikinis...


Posted by Ideofact at 01:23 AM | Comments (0)

State Religion 2

Mistake in Sri Lanka? Amartya Sen says so, according to this account:

Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen is of the opinion that giving a special status to Buddhism and Sinhalese has been a mistake for Sri Lanka. Prof. Sen, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in development economics in 1998, made his observation while replying to questions on Sri Lanka during his Spring Lecture on Poverty, War and Peace, at the Nobel Institute, Oslo, on Monday evening.

He said the island country has brought a division among its citizens in question of national identity by giving special status to Buddhism and Sinhalese and thus, it has lost its glorious richness of plurality.

I'm very interested in this subject, in part because of something Borges wrote about Buddhism's tolerance (it is the only religion that does not demand that its followers renounce other faiths). It would seem, though, that Buddhism combined with political power doesn't work any better than Christianity or Islam combined with political power.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:40 AM | Comments (5042)

May 23, 2007

Mary Warren

Strange to see an old interest cited somewhere else--this description of Mary Warren, who had the distinction of being both accuser and accused during the course of the Salem Witch Trials.


I sort of like the Crucible, although I think Miller overreaches a bit. As I noted in the comment to that old post, there really were people who practiced witchcraft in Salem, using spells and charms and divination techniques that they believed were effective for harming their neighbors or warding off harm from them. A more interesting play might have conceded this, and shown that not only were the communist witch hunts of the 1950s an overreaction, but they were targeting pathetic people in the grip of an ugly superstition.

Chadwick Hanson wrote the seminal book on the real witch trials; sadly, it appears to be unavailable.

In any case, to nb, break a leg.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2007


Epiphany? One of the oddities of Sayyid Qutb's reading of history (Qutb of course is the knucklehead Islamist sometimes called the "brains of bin Laden") is his view of Christianity's history -- could he have been influenced by Edward Gibbon?

Posted by Ideofact at 01:55 AM | Comments (0)

May 21, 2007

New Measures from Antiquity

Continuing with Bryan Ward-Perkins' excellent book The Fall of Rome:

...I have deliberately focused on people in the middle and lower ranks of society, and on the access that they had to sophisticated tools and products, such as writing and good-quality pottery. As we have seen, this access was widespread and impressive in the Roman period, and very restricted thereafter. In this sense, ancient 'civilization' came to an end in the West with the fall of the empire. Of course, what the ancients had done with their sophisticated 'civilization' was as varied, and often as questionable, as our own behaviour. It enabled a peasant near Luna to eat off a Campanian dinner plate, but it also built a mountain of rubbish at Mount Testaccio; it allowed a slave in Britian to express his wish for freedom, but it also enabled a Pompeiian perfume-seller to record a particularly good fuck. Such things, as much as a multitude of books and impressive buildings, are the characteristics of a complex society, or if one prefers, of a 'civilization'.

Elsewhere, Ward-Perkins notes that material culture has declined in importance among those who have been interpreting the fall of the empire; that a preference for aescetic, self-abnegating Christian monks and saints has replaced the interest in material culture.

Though my personal tastes run more in the line of reading the lives of the saints, I tend to think that societies are better judged by their ability to provide fine dining ware and other household goods for even the poorest, allow the slave to wish for freedom (or better yet to be free), and the perfume seller to revel in his good fuck (why are those latter two in opposition?).

It seems to me that widespread access to material benefits -- of Ward-Perkins' "sophisticated tools and products"--should be the primary measure of a just society.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:25 PM | Comments (0)

May 20, 2007

Material Culture

From Bryan Ward-Perkins' excellent work The Fall of Rome:

On the left bank of the Tiber in Rome, by one of the river ports by the ancient city, is a substantial hill some 50 metres high, Monte Testaccio--Pottery Mountain is a reasonable translation into English. It is made up entirely of broken oil amphorae, mainly of the second and third centuries AD and primarily from the province of Baetica in south-western Spain. It has been estimated that Monte Testaccio contains the remains of some 53 million amphorae, in which around six thousand million (6,000,000,000) litres of oil were imported into the city from overseas. Imports into imperial Rome were supported by the full might of the state and were therefore quite exceptional--but the size of operations at Monte Testaccio, and the productivity and the complex that lay behind them, nonetheless cannot fail to impress. This was a society with similarities to our own--moving goods on a gigantic scale, manufacturing high-quality containers to do so, and occasionally, as here, discarding them on delivery. Like us, the Romans enjoy the dubious distinction of creating a mountain of good quality rubbish.

Rubbish aside (and Ward-Perkins notes that we far outstrip the Romans), it's one of several passages that give an idea of the extent of Roman consumer culture, something he touches on elsewhere in the book, and the complex society required to support it.

Posted by Ideofact at 09:55 PM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2007

State Religion

Buddhist monks campaign in Thailand:

Groups of monks in the North and Northeast have been mobilised to persuade locals to support the call for Buddhism to be enshrined as the national religion, according to some charter drafters. Parinya Sirisarakan, a member of the Constitution Drafting Assembly's participation and referendum committee, said rumours were rife that a major Buddhist sect in Bangkok was funding the campaign.

Mr Parinya told a press conference at parliament that groups of monks had turned up at public hearings on the draft constitution held in northern and northeastern provinces.

During the sessions, those monks called for Buddhism to be declared in the new charter as the state religion, and handed out leaflets denouncing opponents of the move as people who were trying to ruin national integrity, religion and the monarchy, he said.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:36 AM | Comments (0)

Shinto revival?

Richard Halloran says so at RealClearPolitics.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:23 AM | Comments (0)

May 16, 2007


The Washington Post had a very important gloss on something Bernard Shaw wrote in the Preface to Androcles and the Lion:

When the late explorer Sir Henry Stanley told me of the emotional grip which Christianity had over the Baganda tribes, and read me their letters, which were exactly like medieval letters in their literal faith and ever-present piety, I said "Can these men handle a rifle?" To which Stanley replied with some scorn "Of course they can, as well as any white man." Now at this moment (1915) a vast European war is being waged, in which the French are using Senegalese soldiers. I ask the French Government, which, like our own Government, is deliberately leaving the religious instruction of these negroes in the hands of missions of Petrine Catholics and Pauline Calvinists, whether they have considered the possibility of a new series of crusades, by ardent African Salvationists, to rescue Paris from the grip of the modern scientific "infidel," and to raise a cry of "Back to the Apostles: back to Charlemagne!"

We are not in the grip of a vast European war, but we are seeing a version of something Shaw anticipated. From the Post:

For years, a dispute has boiled between the American Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion it belongs to, with many in the global south convinced that Episcopalians are following their liberalism into heresy. This month, Archbishop Peter Akinola, shepherd of 18 million fervent Nigerian Anglicans, reached the end of his patience and installed a missionary bishop to America. The installation ceremony included boisterous hymns and Africans dressed in bright robes dancing before the altar -- an Anglican worship style more common in Kampala, Uganda, than in Woodbridge.

The American presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, condemned this poaching of souls on her turf as a violation of the "ancient customs of the church." To which the archbishop replied, in essence: Since when have you American liberals given a fig about the ancient customs of the church?

The commentary, by Michael Gerson, adds the following information about "southern" Christianity:

In 1900, about 80 percent of Christians lived in North America and Europe; now, more than 60 percent live on other continents. There are more Presbyterians in Ghana than in Scotland. The largest district of the United Methodist Church is found in Ivory Coast. And many of the enthusiastic converts of Western missions have begun asking why portions of the Western church have abandoned the traditional faith they once shared. Liberal Protestant church officials, headed toward international assemblies, are anxiously counting African votes, because these new voters tend to take their Bible both literally and seriously.

This emerging Christianity can be troubling. Church leaders sometimes emphasize communal values more than individual human rights, and they need to understand that strongly held moral beliefs are compatible with a commitment to civil liberties for all. Large Pentecostal churches are often built by domineering personalities promising health and wealth.

...and goes on to tell us...

But the religion of the global south has a great virtue: It is undeniably alive. And it needs to be. A mother holding a child weak with AIDS or hot with malaria, or a family struggling to survive in an endless urban slum, does not need religious platitudes. Both need God's ever-present help in time of trouble -- which is exactly what biblical Christianity claims to offer.

I suspect that antiviral drug cocktails and mosquito-killing pesticide regimes are far more beneficial than Christianity.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:58 PM | Comments (0)

May 15, 2007


...the art is pretty cool...


From the Freer Gallery, which I'll be visiting this weekend with the eight-year-old....

Posted by Ideofact at 11:57 PM | Comments (0)

Heresy of the Moneychangers 1

Why is it that so many divines are terrible economists, and so suspicious of technology? I intend to write much more on this, but to get started, here's a bit written by Eknath Easwaran in a commentary on the third "chapter" of the Dhammapada writes,

It may seem surprising that the Buddha devotes so much attention to suspending the operations of that very instrument that people associate with human progress. All of the major material accomplishments of our civilization--the development of the machine, the conquest of disease, the triumph of technology--stem from creative thought. However, no one today would claim that such exploits have taken humanity beyond suffering, much less that they can free a person from death: both of which, the Buddha claims, come when the mind is stilled.

Moreover, less laudable feats--the poisoning of the environment, the production of weapons powerful enough to destroy all of life--all can be traced to creative thought. So long as the mind is not under control, the Buddha says, destructive thoughts cannot be kept out, and selfish motives cannot help bringing undesirable results as well as desirable ones. ...

I don't mean to pick too much on Buddhism -- some of its non-metaphysical prescriptions strike me as being wise--though the stoics seem to get to pretty much the same place without all the mumbo jumbo -- and you can pick any religion and find commenters offering similar rejections of the worldly in favor of the something else that's not quite quantified. To borrow a bit from Adam Smith,
the self interest of the butcher, brewer and baker has undesirable consequences (providing others with supper?), and there is a coin of a higher realm that is to be preferred to their commerce.

But realistically, can't human progress be quantified? Aren't life expectancies up? Haven't hundreds of millions moved from lives of mindless toil to lives of often mindless, occasionally challenging mental toil in the last century? Hasn't human misery been reduced, in very real terms?

Posted by Ideofact at 11:48 PM | Comments (0)

May 14, 2007

Because we needed a picutre...


...and because many magicians -- Houdini, Penn & Teller, have gone to great lengths to debunk superstitions and sleight of hand artists passing themselves off as miracle workers...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:46 AM | Comments (0)

Curious in China

Roger Simon expresses some wonder at the notion that "the Chinese themselves 'religiously' guard against" the image of Mao Tse-Tung being defaced. I suspect that while the government's position is that the Chinese people religiously guard against it, the people themselves have rather different interests:

"Notes on reading the Analects," by Beijing Normal University professor Yu Dan, has become China's best-selling book in recent memory, defying critics who say it turns Confucian thought into self-help pulp for the modern age.

"It is good to have these teachings from old times because people are too selfish now," 60-year-old accountant Qu Juan said of the book that has sold over 3 million copies in four months. "Everybody cares only about making money after the economic reforms," she said, flipping through the softback at a book shop.

Yu first shot to fame in October when she went on state TV to lecture on the Analects, a canon of Confucianism recording discussions between the ancient Chinese sage Confucius (551-479 BC) and his disciples. She wrote the book based on the TV transcripts.

Her mass following tells of deep anxiety about morality and beliefs in a society that has gone through a disorienting transformation in recent decades, analysts said.

"We were taught Marxism and Leninism in schools," said Tian Na, a 25-year-old teacher who bought the book on the Internet.

"But when I became independent and went to college, I saw professors take bribes and I felt the old slogans like 'serve the people' were no longer relevant," she said.

I'd bet most Chinese would rather have a giant portrait (one would be necessary) of Yao than Mao...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:42 AM | Comments (0)

May 13, 2007

Jottings on Hitchens' new book

Yesterday, while sitting in a Seattle Starbucks at 6 a.m. their time (9 a.m. mine), I finished reading God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. It's a powerful book, worthy of the attention of believers, agnostics and nonbelievers alike. A few things, still back of the envelope, that occur to me:

1) The reader will find few (if any) qualifications noting that organized religions, through their organizations, can do good as well as evil, and have on some occasions actually done so. I may misunderstand Hitchens somewhat, but if I do understand him, I think the one qualification he offers is sufficient: The good done by religious organizations is properly credited to the humanity of those running them, and not to any religious creed. Some NFL players do charitable work, but from that one can't conclude that football is a charitable game.

2) Hitchens notes something that I've been persuaded of for some time: That the religious scriptures we have are uniformly wrong about the universe they describe, contain stories for which there is no corroborating archaeological or historical evidence (when there should be--for example, Egyptian references to a Jewish exodus or slave revolt; artifacts left by the Israelites while crossing the Sinai), and appear to have been written for a particular people in a particular era, and not as universal texts have applicability thousands of years into the future. (This explains the demand for theology: Imagine a religion whose texts consisted of a few Times editorials, a policy paper from Brookings on Urban Planning, a campaign platform for a Cincinnati city councilman. Giving them some kind of intellectual coherence once they're removed from their initial purpose -- polemical documents aimed at a specific audience at a specific time -- requires a good deal of intellectual effort.)

3) There is a problem which I find rather difficult to think about, which Hitchens actually does touch on in his introduction to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. First, let me note an early, paleo ideofact post in which I expressed some skepticism on this subject, the notion that demography is destiny (as Mark Steyn sometimes says). Simply put: does natural selection favor a culture in which it is expected that women have no rights, that their fathers marry them off at the earliest possible moment to harness their reproductive potential as soon as possible, producing more boys accustomed to the inferior position of their mothers and more girls with no hope of a better life -- the system held in place by the unalterable word of God himself? Or does it favor a culture in which the pursuit of individual economic, social and other goals by both men and women take precedence, where reproduction is deferred until other goals are met, in which fewer children are born?

Religions are all phony, but perhaps the advantages they offer -- from Islam to Mormonism, from Hinduism to Catholicism -- have to do with their superior capacity to harness the female womb for the productive work of creating more adherents.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:25 PM | Comments (0)

May 10, 2007

Waiting in Denver...

...but not minding too much. Hitchens rocks!

Thoroughly enjoyable as a debunking, I wish he'd included a little more analysis and insight into the role religions play in culture. I suspect that there's a period in all faiths that proves to be adaptive, followed by a longer period in which it is maladaptive. I'm guessing it has something to do with maintaining group cohesiveness, and the great religions require challenges and conflicts and infidels in order to perform their function.

But these are thoughts off the back of the envelope.

Posted by Ideofact at 03:28 PM | Comments (0)

May 09, 2007


Belated thanks to Gene Expression for the nice words, which come during a very frustrating time for me Ideofact-wise.

I think I want to launch a new heresy, which I promise will begin next week. In the meantime, I offer this quotation, from Eknath Easwaran's commentary on the Dhammapada:

...two monds appraoching a river see a young woman who has no means of getting across. One of the monks carries her over and gently puts her down on the other side. On the way to the monastery, the other monk is so obsessed by what his friend has done that he can talk of nothing else. "A monk is not supposed to even touch a woman," he keeps saying, "let alone carry her around in his arms. What have you done?" Finally his friend puts an end to it. "I left that woman on the bank," he retorts. "You are still carrying her."
Posted by Ideofact at 11:42 PM | Comments (0)

May 07, 2007


Now we know what killed the Neanderthals:

Neanderthals disappeared from Earth more than 20,000 years ago, but figuring out why continues to challenge anthropologists. One team of scientists, however, now says they have evidence to back climate change as the main culprit.

You bastards!

Neandertal killer.jpg

Posted by Ideofact at 08:51 PM | Comments (0)

May 06, 2007

Secret Sin

Louise Brooks.jpg

Found guilty of no crime
It was the best years of our life

I'll turn the last card down

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

May 04, 2007

Forgotten films

Ghost Dog.jpg

I can't understand why Ghost Dog, which stars Forest Whitaker and was directed by Jim Jarmusch, isn't more widely regarded as a classic film. Understated, smooth and riveting--and very zen.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:55 AM | Comments (0)

May 03, 2007


Erotique Voilee.jpg

I always find Man Ray arresting and disturbing. After writing 3,500 words at work today, twice (the computer managed to eat the first version, and all the king's techies and all the king's men couldn't put the document back together again), I need to be shocked out of my stupor...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:58 PM | Comments (0)

May 02, 2007



I need to revisit my high school Latin...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)

Joyous Atheism

I'd love to order the aforementioned Stumbling on Happiness, but I have acquired (even by my normal standards) a ridiculous surplus of books. Off of Amazon, I ordered a ton of used copies from the series Case Studies in Anthropology. (Okay, four.) On the advice of the always engaging Alexandra, I ordered Awakening the Buddha Within -- which arrived today. I'm really looking forward to reading it--I flipped through it and five of the six paragraphs I read at random made me want to read the next one. There's the Robespierre book to read (see here), a 1909 short story collection on the Golem, but, most enjoyable of all, the raucously joyful atheism of Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great: How Religion Ruins Everything.

Those familiar with ideofact will, I hope, be aware that I am generally respectful of religions. I do not insult gratuitously. At the same time, I find that the adherents of various and sundry faiths call for tolerance and respect--but I wonder how often they reciprocate. Hitchens is a gleeful atheist (see here, for example:

Like Muhammad, Smith could produce divine revelations at short notice and often simply to suit himself (especially, and like Muhammad, when he wanted a new girl and wished to take her as another wife). As a result, he overreached himself and came to a violent end, having meanwhile excommunicated almost all the poor men who had been his first disciples and who had been browbeaten into taking his dictation. Still, this story raises some very absorbing questions, concerning what happens when a plain racket turns into a serious religion before our eyes.

His passion and zeal strikes me as matching that of the faithful; if there is to be tolerance of the religious, then there must be tolerance by the religious for men like Hitchens.)

I'm looking forward to reading his book. I tend to think, as with happiness, that religion has an evolutionary function--setting useful moral rules that allow us to live in larger groups and more complex societies than following our "happiness meter" would allow. As I think I've said before, it is not necessary that a religion be true to be moral. In other words, the Book of Mormon can be demonstrably phony (it is demonstrably phony--the archaeological record and DNA evidence proves it), but the cultural norms and expectations of the creed can offer its adherents adaptive advantages over -- why not say it -- worldly wisemen like me. I will be curious to see if Hitchens addresses this question.

But I look forward to reading more passages like this one.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:16 AM | Comments (2)

May 01, 2007


The Smithsonian magazine has a brief interview (and the Web site an expanded one) with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. There's much of interest here, particularly this bit (from page two) on the evolutionary function of happiness:

Happiness is the gauge the mind uses to know if it's doing what's right. When I say what's right, I mean in the evolutionary sense, not in the moral sense. Nature could have wired you up with knowing 10,000 rules about how to mate, when to eat, where to seek shelter and safety. Or it could simply have wired you with one prime directive: Be happy. You've got a needle that can go from happy to unhappy, and your job in life is to get it as close to H as possible. As you're walking through woods, when that needle starts going towards U, for unhappy, turn around, do something else, see if you can get it to go toward H. As it turns out, all the things that push the needle toward H—salt, fat, sugar, sex, warmth, security—are just the things you need to survive. I think of happiness as a kind of fitness-o-meter. It's the way the organism is constantly updated about whether its behavior is in support of, or opposition to, its own evolutionary fitness.

I also liked this bit, on our ability to predict our future happiness (I would add: our ability to predict anything):

Q: When did you first realize that people were bad at forecasting their emotional states?

A: It first occurred to me about 15 years ago. I was watching myself go through some very difficult times of life and realizing that, by and large, I was doing much better than I would have predicted if you’d asked me a year or two ago. Being a scientist, I went right to the scientific literature to see what I could learn about this interesting phenomenon. What I found was, there wasn't scientific literature on it. So my colleague Tim Wilson and I teamed up and decided to do a couple little experiments to see if most people were as bad as predicting their emotional future as I had been. Turns out they were. The effect was very robust and what become quickly interesting was not whether this happened, because obvious it does, but why.

I don't know why it happens, but it explains why Cassandra -- the one person who can see the future -- is such an effective character. Maddening to be among the rest of us, who are so uniformly bad at it...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:07 PM | Comments (0)


A while back, I noted an Atlantic article I'd read on the Japanese and their penchant for group suicide arranged among strangers online. The article really impressed me; I decided I needed to check out some of the cultural products that the author mentioned (I'd already seen the Suicide Club).

Just a quick question--did the surrender treaty signed on the U.S.S. Missouri stipulate as one of its terms that a certain percentage of Japanese entertainment must be focused on giant robots piloted by humans that battle monsters?

Just asking...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)

Thanks, Flea...

...for posting this Lene Lovich video -- I hadn't forgotten her, but I had forgotten that she'd briefly been on MTV back in the day. But for my money, Yaz was always much cooler, catchier and colder.


Posted by Ideofact at 12:07 AM | Comments (0)