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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A RAW rant on organized religion

[This is a letter that Robert Anton Wilson wrote to Edward Babinski, who generously shared it with me and gave me permission to reproduce it here, as it seems to be a letter that is not available at, or anywhere else on the Internet.

The TEF referred to in the first paragraph is Babinski's zine, Theistic Evolutionist Forum. Here is Robert Anton Wilson's review of that journal from RAW's newsletter Trajectories, Vol. 1., No. 2: "Editor Edward Babinski upholds his Theistic Evolutionist model against a motley horde of Fundamentalist/Creationists and Atheistic Evolutionists. A refreshingly open forum; Babinksy prints all dissenting correspondence uncensored and unabridged." -- Tom]

6 June 1986

Dear Ed,

Thank you for your invitation to participate in the ongoing discussion in TEF. I think I shall put my thoughts in the form of a letter rather than an article and comment on some of the highlights in the sample issue you sent me (Summer 1986.)

Robert C. Newman's attempts to reconcile the Bible with science seem to me as comic as an attempt to reconcile Mother Goose or the Arabian Nights with science. Of course, if one says "day" doesn't mean "day," then a day can be a billion years; and if one says "square" doesn't mean "square," one can talk of round squares; but such verbal tricks only convince those who invent them. It rather reminds me of a favorite joke of Abe Lincoln's: "If you call this dog's tail a leg, then how many legs does this dog have?" If some innocent replied "Five," Abe would give him some Zen enlightenment fast: "No, this dog still have four legs. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

If some people want to believe the Earth is flat and the center of the universe and was created in seven days by a giant humanoid with a paranoid disposition and a violent temper, that's OK with me. Other people believe equally bizarre things. But if people try to defend such weird beliefs with even weirder word games, I must comment that even lawyers have a slightly higher standard of ethics (or respect for general intelligence) and do not try to convince juries that a kangaroo becomes a hypotenuse of a triangle if we call it the hypotenuse of a triangle.

Your quotations from the New Testament, indicating that Jesus promised the Last Days within one generation, are quite clear and convincing to me. I assume Prof. Newman will be back with an argument that, just as a day can be a billion years, a generation can be a few thousand years. I comment only that an hour can be ten seconds, a year can be 666,666,666,666,666 trillion centuries, a month can be two days, and a tail can be a leg -- if people are determined to abuse language in order to confuse themselves and one another. Philosphy, according to Wittgenstein, is supposed to attempt to avoid such use of language, however.

I have no objection to abuse of language per se; it can be quite funny in the hands of an expert, as in "Alice in Wonderland." My only point here is that it is also funny in the hands of Prof. Newman, even though he doesn't intend to be comical.

Your comments on animal behavior are quite interesting and amusing. One of the reasons I favor the evolution model (I don't "believe" anything, in the religious, or superstitious, sense) is that the differences between people and other animals are quite invisible to me, just like the alleged superiorities of one "race" over another. The dogs, I have often noticed, have the most intelligent expressions in Dublin, but I do not attribute that to a difference or superiority innate in canines.

The dogs are simply the only ones on the streets who haven't had their minds ruined by a Jesuit education.

The six-legged majority on this planet have kept their trip together for a few billion years; I do not observe any human politician with equal intelligence or loyalty to the "hive" or city or nation.

Although I accepted the evolutionary model since high school, as the best model around, I didn't feel it or intuit its meaning until I lived on a farm for two years (1961-62). The continuities were much more obvious than any basic differences when I contemplated the cows, the sheep, the dogs, the cats, the pony, my infant children, my school-age children, the mysterious fellers we saw sticking their snouts out of the ground and ducking back again, my wife, myself, our friends, etc. Human chauvinism seems as provincial and conceited to me as any national chauvinism or racism or sexism. Surely the intellect has better activities than dreaming up "reasons" to think one is superior to every other living being because of the body one was born into?

I recall one day in Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago around 1968, I came upon a Great Horned Owl. He or she was in a cage with a sign saying among other things that he or she was a "desirable" bird. The desirability of the Great Horned Owl was explained by the fact that he or she eats various critters that annoy farmers. This seems to me one of the silliest things I ever saw outside a Creationist journal. My own hunch is that the Great Horned Owl would consider itself desirable no matter what humans thought about the matter; and I also suspect that the critters eaten by the G.H.O. do not consider it a desirable bird at all, but probably regard it as actively nefarious.

An old Sufi teaching-story is a propos here. Somebody asked the divine Mullah Nasruddin, "Why do crickets make that noise all night?"The mullah replied, "To give philosophers something to argue about all day." Who has ears, let them hear.

Dave Matson, on the flood: I agree totally. The concept of "God" in the early books of the Old Testament seems to be a giant humanoid of low intelligence, paranoid-grandiose temperament and sadistic or psychopathic tendencies. This "God" seems, in fact, as stupid as his worshippers. A "God" intelligent enough to design a molecule, let alone a whole universe, would, if he-she-or-it went loony and decided to take up murder, still be intelligent enough to murder ONLY the people he-she-or-it disliked. Accepting the dubious Warren Commission report, even Lee Harvey Oswald was not so clumsy as to shoot everybody in Texas: even Oswald only hit one innocent bystander (the governor). The early Old Testament "God" appears not only as crazy as Oswald but clumsier, stupider and generally less civilized. The Mind that seems to underlie the beauty and coherence of nature cannot be confused with that Stone Age Idol any more than a Beethoven quartet can be confused with "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" King Kong is as convincing a portrait of the Mind of the universe as that killer-God in the Old Testament, it seems to me. Trying to imagine Old Man Jhvh designing even a quark, let alone a molecule, is absurd; He would mess it up, go into a temper, and destroy five nearby cities to express his childish rage.

I am amused by Robert Lysons' letter, claiming that "Man" is a special creation. What about woman, I wonder? Oh, well, one does not expect semantic sophistication from creationists. Anyway, Man, with a capital (and maybe woman, too?) is in bad shape, according to Lysons, and "only Jesus Christ can save him and restore him to his lost state of peace with God, himself and others." Yeah, sure, Lysons. And only new Pepsi makes you feel really happy, and only our brand is better than the competition, and only our country is the best country. It is truly amazing to me that people can utter such arrogant nonsense with no humor, no sense of how offensive they are to others, no doubt or trepidation, and no suspicion that they sound exactly like advertisers, con-men and other swindlers. It is really hard to understand such childlike prattling. If I were especially conceited about something (a state I try to avoid, but if I fell into it ...), if for instance I decided I had the best garden or the handsomest face in Ireland, I would still retain enough common sense to suspect that I would sound like a conceited fool if I went around telling everybody these opinions. I would have enough tact left, I hope, to satisfy my conceit by dreaming that other people would notice on their own that my garden and/or my face were especially lovely. People who go around innocently and blythely announcing that they belong to the Master Race or the Best Country Club or have the One True Religion seem to have never gotten beyond the kindergarten level of ego-display. Do they have no modesty, no tact, no shame, no adult common sense at all?

Do they have any suspicion how silly their conceit sounds to the majority of the nonwhite nonchristian men and women of the world? To me, they seem like little children wearing daddy's clothes and going around shouting, "Look how grown-up I am! Look at me, me, me!"

There are more amusing things than ego-games, conceit and one-upmanship. Really, there are. I suspect that people stay on that childish level because they have never discovered how interesting and exciting the adult world is.

If one must play ego-games, I still think it would be more polite, and more adult, to play them in the privacy of one's head. In fact, despite my efforts to be a kind of Buddhist, I do relapse into such ego-games on occasion; but I have enough respect for human intelligence to keep such thoughts to myself. I don't go around announcing that I have painted the greatest painting of our time; I hope that people will notice that by themselves. Why do the people whose ego-games consist of day-dreaming about being part of the Master Race or the One True Religion do not keep that precious secret to themselves, also, and wait for the rest of the human race to notice their blinding superiority?

To Edward Frielander: I do admire your lack of the "Christian" arrogance that seems so comical in Robert Lysons. To your question on what being made in God's image means, I can only give an opinion, since I have no special access to "God." Alan Watts in The Supreme Identity argues that all that exists, not just humans, is a reflection, or image, of the divine mind. Watts argues this on the basis of Bible texts and esoteric Christian traditions. You might find him interesting. The Hermetic maxim, "That which is below reflects that which is above" is also interesting in this connection. So is Ephesians 4: 4-10. Note especially verse 9.

On the Bagley-Leonatti argument or quarrel or donnybrook or whatever it is: the only point that interests me is the Leonatti thesis that we can't judge "God" by our standards. I have never been able to see any sense in that and Leonatti does not make it sound more sensible to me than anybody else who has tried it. The main problem is that anyone can "win" an argument, or least confuse the issue, by the same basic semantic trick. To go back to my round squares again. I can write 33 pages of nonsense about round squares, and if somebody points out logical flaws and inconsistencies in my flight of fancy, I can them reply, "You can't judge round squares by the standards of ordinary squares." A con-man with a particularly dense sucker could do the same thing with a deed to a tapioca mine in Timbuctoo: "You can't judge a tapioca mine by the standards of iron or coal or other ordinary mines." In my ignorant way, if something sounds like nonsense to me, it still sounds like nonsense even if I am assured that it only sounds like nonsense because I am not as bright as the guy who is trying to sell me the tapioca mine, or the round square, or the concept of a "Just" God who tortures and kills people. I'm sorry, but it sounds like a swindle to me. I will believe in a round square when I see one, in a tapioca mine when I understand how tapioca can be mined, and in a "Just"-God-who-is-Unjust-by-any-thinkable-standard when the unthinkable becomes thinkable. In the meanwhile, I suspect I am being taken for a fool by somebody who likes to play word-tricks.

Confucius said something to the effect that knowing justice is like loving a beautiful person or enjoying a flower in bloom and can be called "respecting one's nose." The same eminent Chinese philosopher remarked: if you hate something done by the man at your right, don't do it to the one at your left. Such simple ideas make sense to my simple mind. When I am told that sadism and torture and mass-murder and jealousy and all the worst in adults and the silliest in children are the supreme virtues of the Mind behind or within the universe, I can only conclude that I am listening to the superstitions of an uncivilized savage, and [when] I am told that I can't judge because I am not smart enough to judge, I can only conclude I am listening to a superstitious savage who has learned a few of the tricks of a con-man.

Like Confucius, I respect my own nose. A flower in bloom smells sweet, a lovely person looks lovely, and murdering millions of people does not seem very nice to me. I will not abandon those opinions or prejudices just because some snake-oil salesman assures me that the truth is beyond my comprehension and the flower really smells like garbage and the lovely person is really ugly and mass murder is really Divine Justice. I will change my opinions or prejudices when I hear a good argument to change them, not when I am told that I am unfit to have an opinion, by some grandiose chap who oddly thinks he himself is fit to have an opinion. That is bluff, or swindle, not logic, or philosophy. (Incidentally, I wonder why those who find that murder is okay when ordered by or committed by their "God," feel superior to the Greeks who thought adultery was okay when committed by their gods. Could not the same con-game logic apply: "We are not fit to judge" etc.?As for the Carthaginian God who ordered the murder of infants, surely we are not fit to judge Him either? Does anybody really believe such obvious swindles even when they utter them? I suppose by self-hypnosis one can learn to believe anything. Salesmen manage that, it appears.)

In conclusion, I admit in advance what all the Christians will say: namely, that I am a very ignorant chap. I don't have all the answers; mostly, I seem to have questions. All I can say is that, for all my ignorance, I don't try to call black "white" and convince people I am being profound when I am merely tricking them verbally. The Old Testament looks to me like an anthology of savage superstitions, Jewish war propaganda, erotic poetry and a few pages of rational philosophy not quite at the level of the Greeks of Chinese of that period. The New Testament looks like the collected ravings and rantings of all of the mental and nervous cases in Jerusalem c. 100 A.D., with a few borrowings of genuine mystic philosophy from the Gnostics. The atheist argument that we all got here, our brains included, by 11 billion years of statistical accidents followed by 4 billion years of genetic copying errors seems to me no more reasonable than the idea that if we dumped junk into the Pacific for the next 15 billion years it would eventually cohere into a 747 jet airplane in operational condition to fly properly. The mind that did design us, and our brothers the grass-hoppers and our sisters the fish and our cousins the noble redwood trees, seems more like the mind of the engineer who designed the 747, or like Einstein's mind, than it seems like the nut-case called "God" in the Old or New Testaments or the Koran or the Book of Mormon.

Victory Over Horseshit,

Bob W (signed)

Robert Anton Wilson


Eric Wagner said...

Great, great, great, great! Thanks so much for your great blog, and happy new year! I found that passage from Ephesians interesting. Ephesus had a lot of witchcraft and goddess worship two thousand years ago, which Shakespeare emphasizes in "The Comedy of Errors," where the confused male characters fear the attacks of witches.

Manic The Doodler said...

Wow. Nobody says it quite like RAW!

michael said...

When RAW chose this mode of rhetoric, we can only feel pity for those whom he addresses with his wit. Unfortunately, he was so devastating that few could answer him at all. The CSICOPpers SHOULD have tried to answer him, but mostly didn't. I think RAW truly wanted to extend the conversation/beef he had with those he labeled "fundamentalist materialists," but it was they who dropped the ball on that. (Consequently, I would argue, many readers of _The New Inquisition_ have misread his overall intent.)

RAW sought, as he said in a letter, "dialectical sparks." Historically - within the History of Ideas - what RAW attempted with The New Inquisition and various ancillary articles and broadsides critical of "fundamentalism" among guardians of "The Citadel of science" both pre- and post - TNI was more recognition as a sort of Interesting Thinker among that milieu of "skeptics." I think RAW thought he truly had something to open up the conversation about Imagination and both working scientists and philosophers of science (Popper/Kuhn/Feyerabend/Lakatos, even Lyotard), and various "artistic" critiques of science (Dadaists, surrealists, Deconstructionists and Foucault, and some stripes within "postmodernism"). Alas, it was not to be. As of early 2011, TNI stands as a sort of wonderful Oddball Book that, to my mind, has not been adequately understood or explained.

But the History of Ideas is littered with attempts like RAW's. Others were much more successful at coming from out of intellectual left field and making a mainstream mark; I think a variety of factors militated against the "fundy materialists" taking RAW on. Accusing RAW of "attacking language and thought," as Rbt Sheaffer did, will not do. Too bad. I really thought RAW wanted Gardner or Sagan to take him on directly. But they didn't, and I think RAW suffered for that. He thought he had something to contribute that was very important, and so do some of us reading Tom Jackson's blog and alt.rawilson...

I think RAW's underlying motives in TNI may have been too erudite to unpack, and that's why he went relatively unanswered there. But there seems much more than that...

The tone and force of this rhetoric from RAW seems evermore rare these days, and I think it's a basic loss for the culture.

From 1959 at least, RAW had displayed this olde-fashioned American sarcastic/satirical, thoroughly devastatingly witty rhetorical style, and trotted it out at intervals throughout the 1960s-70s. But his move to Ireland and an immersion in all of Swift's writings seemed to push that style to a golden degree. It's further roots lie in Bierce, Mencken, Nietzsche, late Twain, Kenneth Burke, Pound, Clarence Darrow and a few others.

Anyhow: THANKS for this, Jackson!

Eric Wagner said...

Great post, Dr. Johnson. I think Bob's _Natural Law or Don't Put a Rubber on Your Willy_ seems even more Swiftian than the great _New Inquistion_. One of these years I'd like to read all of Swift. I struggled to finish _Gulliver's Travels_. I haven't really tuned in to Swift's umvelt.

How useful a tool do you consider E-Prime these days?

I just watched "The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick." I loved the interview footage of Bob Wilson. As we near the fourth anniversary of his passing, he more and more seems the most sane and reasonable writer/person I've encountered.

Unknown said...

This book is loved by every "stoic" or "macho" person I have given it to. It has passed from NYC firefighter to NYC EMS. Amazing opener!
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