Sunday, 30 September 2012


Some pieces of writing are so powerful, so right, so full of air-punchingly 'YES!'.

I warn you now not to read Christopher Hitchens', "God Is Not Great" in public because people will think you're strange when you shout out and punch the air!

And I warn you now not to read this piece by Ayaan Hirsi Ali entitled "How (and Why) I Became an Infidel". She wrote it especially for Christopher Hitchens' book, "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer".

First a little background on Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

Born in Somalia she witnessed first hand female genital mutilation, clerical cruelty, and religion-inspired barbarism. After escaping to Holland she watched as her colleague Theo Van Gogh was murdered by Islamic extremists for satirizing Islamic repression of women and was told she was to be their next victim. She had initially believed that Islam could be reformed but soon realised that it's 'faith' itself which is the problem.
When I finally admitted to myself that I was an unbeliever, it was because I simply couldn’t pretend any longer that I believed. Leaving Allah was a long and painful process for me, and I tried to resist it for as long as I could. All my life I had wanted to be a good daughter of my clan, and that meant above all that I should be a good Muslim woman, who had learned to submit to God — which in practice meant the rule of my brother, my father, and later my husband.

When I was a child, I had a child’s revulsion against injustice. I could not understand why Allah, if he were truly merciful and all-powerful, would tolerate and indeed require that I stand behind my brother at prayer and obey his whims, or that the courts should consider my statements to be inherently less valid than his. But shame and obedience had been drilled into me from my earliest years. I obeyed my parents, my clan, and my religious teachers, and I felt ashamed that by my questioning I seemed to be betraying them.

As I became a teenager, my rebellion grew. It was not yet a revolt against Islam. Who was I to contest Allah? But I did feel constricted by my family and our Somali clan, where family honor was the overriding value, and seemed principally to reside in the control, sale, and transfer of girls’ virginity. Reading Western books—even trashy romance novels—gave me a vision of an astounding alternative universe where girls had choices.

Still, I struggled to conform. I voluntarily robed in a black hijab that covered my body from head to toe. I tried to pray five times a day and to obey the countless strictures of the Koran and the Hidith. I did so mostly because I was afraid of Hell. The Koran lists Hell’s torments in vivid detail: sores, boiling water, peeling skin, burning flesh, dissolving bowels. An everlasting fire burns you forever for as your flesh chars and your juices boil, you form a new skin. Every preacher I encountered hammered more mesmerizing details onto his nightmarish tableau. It was genuinely terrifying.

Ultimately, I think, it was books, and boys, that saved me. No matter how hard I tried to submit to Allah’s will, I still felt desire — sexual desire, urgent and real, which even the vision of Hellfire could not suppress. It made me ashamed to feel that way, but when my father told me he was marrying me off to a stranger, I realized that I could not accept being locked forever into the bed of a man who left me cold.

I escaped. I ended up in Holland. With the help of many benevolent Dutch people, I managed to gain confidence that I had a future outside my clan. I decided to study political science, to discover why Muslim societies — Allah’s societies — were poor and violent, while the countries of the despised infidels were wealthy and peaceful. I was still a Muslim in those days. I had no intention of criticizing Allah’s will, only to discover what had gone so very wrong.

It was at university that I gradually lost my faith. The ideas and the facts that I encountered there were thrilling and powerful, but they also clashed horribly with the vision of the world with which I had grown up. At first, when the cognitive dissonance became too strong, I would try to shove these issues to the back of my mind. The ideas of Spinoza and Freud, Darwin and Locke and Mill, were indisputably true, but so was the Koran; and I vowed to one day resolve these differences. In the meantime, I could not make myself stop reading. I knew the argument was a weak one, but I told myself that Allah is in favor of knowledge.

The pleasures and anonymity of life in the clan-less West were almost as beguiling as the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers. Quite soon after I arrived in Holland, I replaced my Muslim dress with jeans. I avoided socializing with other Somalis first, and then with other Muslims — they preached to me about fear of the Hereafter and warned that I was damned. Years later, I drank my first glass of wine and had a boyfriend. No bolt of Hellfire burned me; chaos did not ensue. To pacify my mind, I adopted an attitude of “negotiating” with Allah: I told myself these were small sins, which hurt no one; surely God would not mind too much.

Then the Twin Towers were toppled in the name of Allah and his prophet, and I felt that I must choose sides. Osama bin Laden’s justification of the attacks was more consistent with the content of the Koran and the Sunna than the chorus of Muslim officials and Western wishful thinkers who denied every link between the bloodshed and Islam. Did I, as a Muslim, support bin Laden’s act of “worship”? Did I feel it was what God commanded? And if not, was I a Muslim?

I picked up a book — The Atheist Manifesto by Herman Philipse, who later became a great friend. I began reading it, marvelling at the clarity and naughtiness of its author. But I really didn’t have to. Just looking at it, just wanting to read it—that already meant I doubted. Before I’d read four pages, I realized that I had left Allah behind years ago. I was an atheist. An apostate. An infidel. I looked in a mirror and said out loud, in Somali, “I don’t believe in God.”

I felt relief. There was no pain but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure, and carefully tip-toeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out piece by piece—all that was over. The ever-present prospect of Hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book.

In the next few months, I began going to museums. I needed to see ruins and mummies and old dead people, to look at the reality of the bones and to absorb the realization that, when I die, I will become just a bunch of bones. Some of them were five hundred million years old, I noted; if it took Allah longer than that to raise the dead, the prospect of his retribution for my lifetime of enjoyment seemed distinctly less plausible.

I was on a psychological mission to accept living without a God, which means accepting that I give my life its own meaning. I was looking for a deeper sense of morality. In Islam you are Allah’s slave; you submit, which means that ideally you are devoid of personal will. You are not a free individual. You behave well because you fear Hell, which is really a form of blackmail — you have no personal ethic.

Now I told myself that we, as human individuals, are our own guides to good and evil. We must think for ourselves; we are responsible for our own morality. I arrived at the conclusion that I couldn’t be honest with others unless I was honest with myself. I wanted to comply with the goals of religion — which are to be a better and more generous person — without suppressing my will and forcing it to obey an intricate and inhumanly detailed web of rules. I had lied many times in my life, but now, I told myself, that was over: I had had enough of lying.

After I wrote my memoir, Infidel (published in the United States in 2007), I did a book tour in the United States. I found that interviewers from the Heart-land often asked if I had considered adopting the message of Jesus Christ. The idea seems to be that I should shop for a better, more humane religion than Islam, rather than taking refuge in unbelief. A religion of talking serpents and heavenly gardens? I usually respond that I suffer from hayfever. The Christian take on Hellfire seems less dramatic than the Muslim vision, which I grew up with, but Christian magical thinking appeals to me no more than my grandmother’s angels and djinns.

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali - How (and Why) I Became an Infidel
From Hitchens, Christopher (2007-12-10).
The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (pp. 477-480).
Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

copyright © 2007 by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

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More Einstein On Religion

If there is a scientist who religious apologists love to claim agreed with them it's Albert Einstein. Not only has Einstein become, in the popular imagination, the archetype of what the scientifically illiterate imagine to be a scientist (dishevelled, a little bit scatty, even slightly mad (which he wasn't) and absent-minded (again, not true)), but he is acknowledged as one of the all-time greats; a genius by any standard who showed us that reality can be decidedly counter-intuitive. But he has one outstanding quality from a religious apologists point of view: he is dead and so can't refute the claims they make about him and his views on religion.

Fortunately though, he was never shy to state his views when asked and did record them for posterity.

I have previously blogged about this with Albert Einstein On Religion but here is a much more extensive collection of Einstein's recorded religious views. I originally came across this collection in Chapter 22 of Christopher Hitchen's book "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever", compiled by Miguel Chavez, however the list is almost identical, save for the final two quotes, to one on "The Unofficial Stephen J Gould Archive", to which the bulk of the credit must go.

The list is numbered and tagged for ease of reference. To reference any one of these quotes, simply add a hash (#) followed by the appropriate number (e.g. #22) to the url of this page.

1. "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

Albert Einstein. Letter to J. Dispentiere, March 24, 1954
Source: Wikipedia - Albert Einstein's Religious Views
2. "As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine. Thus I came - though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment — an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections. It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings....

The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it."

Albert Einstein, Autobiographical Notes. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company (1979), pp. 3-5
Source: Wikipedia - Albert Einstein's Religious Views
3. "My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a lawgiver who works on the basis of reward and punishment."

Albert Einstein. Letter to Morton Berkowitz, October 25, 1950.
Source: Letter Of Note.
4. "The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.

It was the experience of mystery - even if mixed with fear - that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature."

Albert Einstein, The World as I See It, Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1999, p. 5.
5. "The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve."

Albert Einstein, 17 December, 1952.
Letter to Beatrice Frohlich. Einstein Archives 59-797
6. "It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem—the most important of all human problems."

Albert Einstein, 1947. Hoffmann, Banesh (1972). Albert Einstein Creator and Rebel.
New York: New American Library, p. 95.
7. I am a deeply religious nonbeliever.… This is a somewhat new kind of religion."

Albert Einstein March 30, 1954.
Letter to Hans Muehsam; Einstein Archive 38-434
8. "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings."

Albert Einstein 24 April 1921.
Telegram to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of The Institutional Synagogue
Published in New York Time, 25 April 1921.
9. "I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it"

Albert Einstein 1953; Letter to a Baptist pastor.
10. "Why do you write to me ‘God should punish the English’? I have no close connection to either one or the other. I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of His children for their numerous stupidities, for which only He Himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only His nonexistence could excuse Him."

Albert Einstein 2 January 1915
Letter to Edgar Meyer, a Swiss colleague.
11. "It is quite possible that we can do greater things than Jesus, for what is written in the Bible about him is poetically embellished."

Albert Einstein; quoted in W. I. Hermanns, "A Talk with Einstein," October 1943,
Einstein Archive 55-285
12. "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms."

Albert Einstein, quoted in The New York Times obituary, April 19, 1955;
from George Seldes, ed., "The Great Thoughts", New York: Ballantine Books, 1996, p. 134.
13. "The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education. The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action."

Albert Einstein 20 November 1950. Letter to a minister.
14. "A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man's actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God's eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death. It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees."

Albert Einstein 9 November 1930,
"Religion and Science", in the New York Times Magazine, pp. 3-4
15. "The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious. It is more a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe. It does not lead us to take the step of fashioning a god-like being in our own image-a personage who makes demands of us and who takes an interest in us as individuals. There is in this neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only sheer being. For this reason, people of our type see in morality a purely human matter, albeit the most important in the human sphere."

Albert Einstein, letter to a Rabbi in Chicago
16. "I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism."

Albert Einstein, replying to a letter in 1954 or 1955
17. "I do not believe that a man should be restrained in his daily actions by being afraid of punishment after death or that he should do things only because in this way he will be rewarded after he dies. This does not make sense. The proper guidance during the life of a man should be the weight that he puts upon ethics and the amount of consideration that he has for others."

Albert Einstein; from Peter A. Bucky, "The Private Albert Einstein", Kansas City: Andrews & McMeel, 1992, p. 86.
18. "Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the action of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being."

Albert Einstein, 1936, in response to a child who had written him asking if scientists pray.
19. "I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation. I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science. [He was speaking of Quantum Mechanics and the breaking down of determinism.] My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality. Morality is of the highest importance — but for us, not for God."

Albert Einstein;
from "Albert Einstein the Human Side", Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, eds., Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981, p. 66.
20. "The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself amoung[sic] profoundly religious men."

Note: I have not been able to find an original sources found for this quote, which is widely attributed to Einstein. If you know of one please let me know with a comment below.
21. "The idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I am unable to take seriously."

Albert Einstein, 1946. Letter to Hoffman and Dukas.
22. "The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge."

Albert Einstein, Science, Philosophy, and Religion, a 1934 Symposium published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941;
from Einstein's "Out of My Later Years", Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970, pp. 29-30.
23. "I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos."

Albert Einstein on quantum mechanics, published in the London Observer, April 5, 1964.
Also quoted as "God does not play dice with the world." in Einstein: The Life and Times,
Ronald W. Clark, New York: World Publishing Co., 1971, p. 19.
24. "I cannot accept any concept of God based on the fear of life or the fear of death or blind faith. I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him I would be a liar."

Albert Einstein; from Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, New York: World Publishing Company, 1971, p. 622.
25. "During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man's own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favor by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfillment of their wishes.

"Nobody, certainly, will deny that the idea of the existence of an omnipotent, just, and omnibeneficent personal God is able to accord man solace, help, and guidance; also, by virtue of its simplicity it is accessible to the most undeveloped mind. But, on the other hand, there are decisive weaknesses attached to this idea in itself, which have been painfully felt since the beginning of history. That is, if this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?

"The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God. It is the aim of science to establish general rules which determine the reciprocal connection of objects and events in time and space. For these rules, or laws of nature, absolutely general validity is required—not proven. It is mainly a program, and faith in the possibility of its accomplishment in principle is only founded on partial successes. But hardly anyone could be found who would deny these partial successes and ascribe them to human self-deception. The fact that on the basis of such laws we are able to predict the temporal behavior of phenomena in certain domains with great precision and certainty is deeply embedded in the consciousness of the modern man, even though he may have grasped very little of the contents of those laws. He need only consider that planetary courses within the solar system may be calculated in advance with great exactitude on the basis of a limited number of simple laws. In a similar way, though not with the same precision, it is possible to calculate in advance the mode of operation of an electric motor, a transmission system, or of a wireless apparatus, even when dealing with a novel development.

"To be sure, when the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large, scientific method in most cases fails us. One need only think of the weather, in which case prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible. Nevertheless no one doubts that we are confronted with a causal connection whose causal components are in the main known to us. Occurrences in this domain are beyond the reach of exact prediction because of the variety of factors in operation, not because of any lack of order in nature.

"We have penetrated far less deeply into the regularities obtaining within the realm of living things, but deeply enough nevertheless to sense at least the rule of fixed necessity. One need only think of the systematic order in heredity, and in the effect of poisons, as for instance alcohol, on the behavior of organic beings. What is still lacking here is a grasp of connections of profound generality, but not a knowledge of order in itself.

"The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events. To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.

"But I am persuaded that such behavior on the part of the representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task."

Albert Einstein, Science, Philosophy, and Religion, a 1934 Symposium published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941.
From Einstein's "Out of My Later Years", Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970, pp. 26-29.
26. "I cannot then believe in this concept of an anthropomorphic God who has the powers of interfering with these natural laws. As I said before, the most beautiful and most profound religious emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. And this mysticality is the power of all true science."

Albert Einstein; from Peter A. Bucky, "The Private Albert Einstein", Kansas City: Andrews & McMeel, 1992, p. 86.
27. "The mystical trend of our time, which shows itself particularly in the rampant growth of the so-called Theosophy and Spiritualism, is for me no more than a symptom of weakness and confusion. Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions, and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seem to me to be empty and devoid of meaning."

Albert Einstein, in a letter February 5, 1921.
28. "Mere unbelief in a personal God is no philosophy at all."

Albert Einstein, May 7, 1952. Letter to V. T Aaltonen, Einstein Archive 59-059.
29. "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”

Albert Einstein 28 September 1949, to Guy H. Raner Jr.
30. "For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts."

Albert Einstein, "Out of My Later Years", Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970, p. 25.
31. "In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views."

Albert Einstein, according to the testimony of Prince Hubertus of Lowenstein; as quoted by Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, New York: World Publishing Company, 1971, p. 425.
32. "I received your letter of June 10th. I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. Your counter-arguments seem to me very correct and could hardly be better formulated. It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere—childish analogies. We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of this world as far—as we can grasp it. And that is all."

Albert Einstein, to Guy H. Raner Jr., July 2, 1945, responding to a rumor that a Jesuit priest had caused Einstein to convert from atheism; from Michael R. Gilmore.
33. "I am convinced that some political and social activities and practices of the Catholic organizations are detrimental and even dangerous for the community as a whole, here and everywhere. I mention here only the fight against birth control at a time when overpopulation in various countries has become a serious threat to the health of people and a grave obstacle to any attempt to organize peace on this planet."

Albert Einstein in a letter, 1954; from Paul Blanshard, "American Freedom and Catholic Power", Greenwood Pub., 1984, p. 10.
34. "It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which [I] lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings."

Albert Einstein; from Gerald Holton, Einstein: History, and Other Passions, Woodbury, NY: Perseus Press, 1996, p. 172.
35. "His [Einstein] was not a life of prayer and worship. Yet he lived by a deep faith — a faith not capable of rational foundation — that there are laws of Nature to be discovered. His lifelong pursuit was to discover them. His realism and his optimism are illuminated by his remark: ‘Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not’ (‘Raffiniert ist der Herrgott aber boshaft ist er nicht.’). When asked by a colleague what he meant by that, he replied: ‘Nature hides her secret because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse’ (‘Die Natur verbirgt ihr Geheimnis durch die Erhabenheit ihres Wesens, aber nicht durch List.’)”

Abraham Pais, "Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein", Oxford University Press, New York, 1982.
36. "However, Einstein's God was not the God of most other men. When he wrote of religion, as he often did in middle and later life, he tended to adopt the belief of Alice's Red Queen that "words mean what you want them to mean," and to clothe with different names what to more ordinary mortals — and to most Jews — looked like a variant of simple agnosticism. Replying in 1929 to a cabled inquiry from Rabbi Goldstein of New York, he said that he believed "in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exist, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men." And it is claimed that years later, asked by Ben-Gurion whether he believed in God, "even he, with his great formula about energy and mass, agreed that there must be something behind the energy." No doubt. But much of Einstein's writing gives the impression of belief in a God even more intangible and impersonal than a celestial machine minder, running the universe with indisputable authority and expert touch. Instead, Einstein's God appears as the physical world itself, with its infinitely marvellous structure operating at atomic level with the beauty of a craftsman's wristwatch, and at stellar level with the majesty of a massive cyclotron. This was belief enough. It grew early and rooted deep. Only later was it dignified by the title of cosmic religion, a phrase which gave plausible respectability to the views of a man who did not believe in a life after death and who felt that if virtue paid off in the earthly one, then this was the result of cause and effect rather than celestial reward. Einstein's God thus stood for an orderly system obeying rules which could be discovered by those who at the courage, imagination, and persistence to go on searching for them. It was to this past which he began to turn his mind soon after the age of twelve. The rest of his life everything else was to seem almost trivial by comparison.”

Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, New York: World Publishing, 1971, pp. 19-20.
37. "That a man can take pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed."

Albert Einstein, from Hitchens, Christopher (2007-12-10).
The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (p. 165).
Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
38. "A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving."

Albert Einstein, from Hitchens, Christopher (2007-12-10).
The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (p. 165).
Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Favourite 'Intelligent' Design Argument

Of course, all 'Intelligent Design' arguments are simple variations on the argument from ignorance and incredulity. Basically, the argument goes, "I don't know how this works and I can't believe it wasn't done by a god, therefore it was done by a god, and don't expect me to spoil my lovely argument by learning and understanding stuff."

There are a large number of people who make a handsome living supplying people with that level of reasoning ability and intellectual (dis)honesty, especially in the USA where fundamentalist Christianity is a multi-billion dollar industry.

One of the originators of the under-cover wing of the Creationist industry, 'Intelligent Design' was biochemist, Michael J. Behe, who wrote a book called Darwin's Black Box which claimed that there are certain structures which are 'irreducibly complex' and therefore could not have evolved by the small steps proposed by Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection. Michael Behe is a devout Catholic and talks almost exclusively to right-wing conservative Christian fundamentalist groups but denies his argument is merely biblical Creationism cloaked in a scientific-looking disguise which is intended to get round the First Amendment of the Constitution of the USA.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

'Intelligent Design' and 'Irreducible Complexity' are major planks of the 'Wedge' strategy whereby right-wing fundamentalist groups continually try to insert their religion into schools and other government-funded bodies in order to subvert the Constitution and overthrow the safeguard of separation of church and state which underpins freedom of speech and freedom of conscience in a secular society.

Behe's book was, of course, refuted within days of publication by proper biologists and he has never presented his ideas for peer review or to a conference of microbiologists, nevertheless it sold millions to creationists and is still widely quoted as if it is genuine science.

Ironically, one of the main structure he relied on was the flagellum of the motile bacterium Escherichia coli. This is ironic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the precursors of the 'proton motor' which powers the flagellum, and which is the nearest thing to a wheel known in nature, albeit it's the 'axle' which spins round, not the wheel, are known, so very plausible mechanisms for its evolution can be described. See also Evolution of the Bacterial Flagella.

But Behe's claim falls down in another area: the necessary 'complexity' to produce a flagellum is not in the component proteins and how they are assembled but in E. coli DNA. There is no record of Behe having investigated the 'complexity' of E. coli DNA to determine if it is indeed irreducibly complex in respect of the flagellum because he has never carried out that study.

The second irony is that E. coli and its related bacteria are a good example of evolution.

The genera Escherichia and Salmonella diverged around 102 million years ago (credibility interval: 57–176 mya), which coincides with the divergence of their hosts: the former being found in mammals and the latter in birds and reptiles. This was followed by a split of the escherichian ancestor into five species (E. albertii, E. coli, E. fergusonii, E. hermannii and E. vulneris. The last E. coli ancestor split between 20 and 30 mya.

See also Wikipedia - Escherichia coli Phylogeny of Escherichia coli strains.

Thirdly, there is the fact the E. coli is the subject of a long-term experiment in evolution which has already produced some interesting results after some 50,000 generations:

The E. coli long-term evolution experiment is an ongoing study in experimental evolution led by Richard Lenski that has been tracking genetic changes in 12 initially identical populations of asexual Escherichia coli bacteria since 24 February 1988. The populations reached the milestone of 50,000 generations in February 2010.

Since the experiment's inception, Lenski and his colleagues have reported a wide array of genetic changes; some evolutionary adaptations have occurred in all 12 populations, while others have only appeared in one or a few populations. One particularly striking adaption was the evolution of a strain of E. coli that was able to grow on citric acid in its growth medium.

But my favourite irony in Behe's choice of E. coli as his example of 'Intelligent Design' is in what E. coli can do. One strain is a normal, even beneficial part of our gut 'flora', i.e. the collection of micro-organisms which live in our digestive tracts, the dead bodies of which constitute a large part of the volume of our faeces. E. coli helps control some other organisms which, if they become too numerous may be harmful. However, some strains of E. coli are far from 'friendly' and even our 'friendly' ones are far from friendly if they get into our blood where they can become seriously pathogenic, even fatal. Some strains are highly dangerous and great care must be taken to prevent them getting into our food.

The supreme irony here is that this pathological tendency of E. coli is enhanced greatly by its motility, which depends entirely on its flagellum. If we are to believe Michael Behe we have to believe his intelligent designer designed a mechanism for helping a bacterium make us sick and even kill us, presumably, because it loves us so much.

Untrammelled by little inconveniences like facts, Michael Behe continues to push his brand of fundamentalism to credulous Creationists and sell them books full of long-refuted argument and falsehoods. Such is the level of integrity we find pervading the Christian fundamentalism industry, particularly in the USA where it also promotes extreme right-wing politics and pedals its creed to those at the bottom of the social ladder, and which the Christian conservative right seeks to keep there by feeding them ignorant superstition dressed up as hope.

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Creationism's Laughably Absurd Hypothesis

One of the most dishonest and yet probably the most frequent arguments religions use in support of their own particular creator god is the argument from improbability.

Briefly, the argument from improbability says that such-and-such an event is so enormously unlikely that it couldn't just happen by chance, so there must have been a creator, or, in the words of Creationism's under-cover wing, 'Intelligent Design', an intelligent designer (i.e the god they are trying hard not to mention). Events such as the origin of life, the origin of the first cell, a human body, the human brain, a tree, etc, etc, etc, will be cited ad nauseum. This argument is, of course, used for any god by any religion which has a creator god. The actual god doesn't matter; you're just expected to assume it's their favourite one.

The appeal of this argument seems to depend on both ignorance and arrogance for its success. It seems to give its proponents the spurious satisfaction of having an argument which simultaneously circumvents and dismisses the need to bother with all that learning and yet enables them to present themselves as knowing more and having greater insight and understanding than those who do so bother. And yet, as Richard Dawkins pointed out in "The God Delusion", properly deployed, the argument from improbability comes close to proving that God does not exist.

But it is, of course, invariably a straw man argument combined with a false dichotomy. Biology does not make any claim that cells or bodies, brains or trees, or even the first replicators spontaneously self-assembled by chance. So the choice is not between random and hugely unlikely chance or design/intent. It is between random chance, intelligent designer or a process of natural selection over a very long time. For some reason, religious apologists and Creationists conveniently forget to include Natural Selection either because they don't understand it or don't want you to.

I'll let Richard Dawkins, quoted from "The God Delusion" in Christopher Hitchin's book, "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Non-Believer", explain it:

The Ultimate Boeing 747

The argument from improbability is the big one. In the traditional guise of the argument from design, it is easily today’s most popular argument offered in favor of the existence of God and it is seen, by an amazingly large number of theists, as completely and utterly convincing. It is indeed a very strong and, I suspect, unanswerable argument — but in precisely the opposite direction from the theist’s intention. The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist. My name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

The name comes from Fred Hoyle’s amusing image of the Boeing 747 and the scrapyard. I am not sure whether Hoyle ever wrote it down himself, but it was attributed to him by his close colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe and is presumably authentic. Hoyle said that the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. Others have borrowed the metaphor to refer to the later evolution of complex living bodies, where it has a spurious plausibility. The odds against assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle, or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts are up there in 747 territory. This, in a nutshell, is the creationist’s favourite argument—an argument that could be made only by somebody who doesn't understand the first thing about natural selection: somebody who thinks natural selection is a theory of chance whereas—in the relevant sense of chance—it is the opposite.

The creationist misappropriation of the argument from improbability always takes the same general form, and it doesn't make any difference if the creationist chooses to masquerade in the politically expedient fancy dress of “intelligent design” (ID). Some observed phenomenon—often a living creature or one of its more complex organs, but it could be anything from a molecule up to the universe itself—is correctly extolled as statistically improbable. Sometimes the language of information theory is used: the Darwinian is challenged to explain the source of all the information in living matter, in the technical sense of information content as a measure of improbability or “surprise value.” Or the argument may invoke the economist’s hackneyed motto: there’s no such thing as a free lunch — and Darwinism is accused of trying to get something for nothing. In fact, as I shall show in this chapter, Darwinian natural selection is the only known solution to the otherwise unanswerable riddle of where the information comes from. It turns out to be the God Hypothesis that tries to get something for nothing. God tries to have his free lunch and be it too. However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable. God is the Ultimate Boeing 747.

The argument for improbability states that complex things could not have come about by chance. But many people define “come about by chance” as “a synonym for come about in the absence of deliberate design.” Not surprisingly, therefore, they think improbability is evidence of design. Darwinian natural selection shows how wrong this is with respect to biological improbability. And although Darwinism may not be directly relevant to the inanimate world — cosmology, for example — it raises our consciousness in areas outside its original territory of biology.

A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine the alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. Would that he had succeeded with all of us.


  1. We can agree with Creationists that random chance is far too unlikely to be the explanation. No argument there; it's just too daft for words. Invoking random chance as the explanation for anything of very much complexity is probably the daftest argument you can come up with. Let's call this 'The Laughably Absurd Hypothesis'.
  2. We know that there is a perfectly well described and understood process called Natural Selection which we can observe, and which is probably the most tested, robust and evidentially supported theory in the whole of science and which we know is quite capable of producing huge complexity over time. Let's call this 'The Very Probable Hypothesis'.
  3. We have a vague, very incomplete and poorly described Intelligent Designer Hypothesis. The problem with this is that it collapses immediately under the weight of the very problem it purports to solve. It requires us to abandon the idea that hugely complex things are very unlikely to spontaneously self-assemble - the thing we were trying to explain - and adopt instead the notion that 'The Laughably Absurd Hypothesis' is not only not too daft for words but that somehow it's now the best explanation available and a vastly complex intelligent designer, complete with all the information necessary to create the universe and everything in it, spontaneously self-assembled and did so before there was anything out of which it could be assembled - which is of course logically absurd on so many levels - and Creationists themselves are forever assuring us that you can't get something from nothing. Let's call this 'The Logically Impossible Hypothesis'.

Now, the task for those Creationists who have managed to get this far before closing the page in embarrassment is this:

Explain please, why your 'Logically Impossible Hypothesis' should be taken seriously by anyone with an IQ higher than that of a thick plank, and in what way it is superior to either of the other two.

If you can't, which of the other two competing hypotheses do you think is most likely to be the true description of how complex things arise: The Laughably Absurd one or The Very Probable one?

Take your time.

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Sunday, 23 September 2012

Rapid Evolution Makes Creationists Crabby

Blue mussel (Mytlius edulis)
Here's a nice example of evolution occurring not over the millions of years that we normally expect with a slow accumulation of small changes over time but in as short as fifteen years. And it not quite as straightforward as we might expect either.

It involves our old friend, the evolutionary arms race, this time involving the American East Coast population of the blue mussel (Mytlius edulis) and an invasive species of aggressive Asian crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus).

In common with other bivalve molluscs, mussels close their shells at a hint of danger and so predators have had to evolve a strategy for opening them. One of these predators is the green crab (Carcinus maenas) which has adopted the strategy of simply breaking the shell of the blue mussel with its pincers.

In response to that strategy, the blue mussel has evolved a neat trick. The obvious way would be to evolve a thicker shell but thicker shells are a drain on the mussels' resources and are not always needed because green crab are not always in sufficient numbers to pose a serious enough threat to invest in a permanently thick shell, so the blue mussel has evolved the ability to detect a chemical in the water given off by green crabs, and only thickens it's shell when the population reaches a critical threshold number.

Neat, eh?

Asian or Japanese shore crab, Hemigrapsus sanguineus
But, in 1988 the Asian or Japanese shore crab was reported in New Jersey into the Atlantic and by 1991 had started to invade the southern parts of the US East Coast where it found a population of blue mussels which had no effective defence against them because they were unable to detect their presence. The Asian crab quickly spread north as far as southern Maine, but no further.

However, fifteen years later, in 2006, two researchers, Aaron S. Freeman and James E. Byers, made an amazing discovery, published in Science. They found that blue mussels had already evolved the ability to detect a different chemical produced by the Asian crab and were now using the same defence strategy as they did for the native green crab.

By contrast, the 'control group' of blue mussels from the northern shores of Maine showed no such ability.


Invasive species may precipitate evolutionary change in invaded communities. In southern New England (USA) the invasive Asian shore crab, Hemigrapsus sanguineus, preys on mussels (Mytlius edulis), but the crab has not yet invaded northern New England. We show that southern New England mussels express inducible shell thickening when exposed to waterborne cues from Hemigrapsus, whereas naïve northern mussel populations do not respond. Yet, both populations thicken their shells in response to a long-established crab, Carcinus maenas. Our findings are consistent with the rapid evolution of an inducible morphological response to Hemigrapsus within 15 years of its introduction.

Now, if you're a creationist and have had the courage to read this far, you've almost certainly been looking for an excuse to reject this examples as an example of evolution, or otherwise pour scorn on the idea. You've probably by now decided your best tactic is to dismiss it as an 'example of microevolution' but not of 'macroevolution' and are going to rely in the creationist mantra, 'macroevolution is impossible'.

So, just suppose whatever genetic change involved in this evolution had inhibited the ability of the carrier to breed with non-carriers and produce fertile offspring. We would now be classifying the evolved blue mussels as a different species which appeared to have replaced the non-evolved species along the coast of New England, with the more 'primitive' form maintaining a toe-hold in northern Maine.

What would have been impossible about that?

In fact, this scenario is not at all unlikely given what we already know of the distribution of Mytlius edulis and the hybridisation and subspecies we know about.

Systematics and distribution

The Mytilus edulis complex

Systematically blue mussels consist of a group of (at least) three closely related taxa of mussels, known as the Mytilus edulis complex. Collectively they occupy both coasts of the North Atlantic (including the Mediterranean) and of the North Pacific in temperate to polar waters, as well as coasts of similar nature in the Southern Hemisphere. The distribution of the component taxa has been recently modified as a result of human activity (invasive species). The taxa can hybridise with each other, if present at the same locality.
  • Mytilus edulis sensu stricto: Native to the North Atlantic.
    • Mytilus edulis platensis ( = Mytilus chilensis), the Chilean mussel: Temperate waters in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • Mytilus galloprovincialis, the Mediterranean mussel: Native in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and Western Europe. Introduced in the temperate North Pacific, South Africa and elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. A distinct lineage native to the Southern Hemisphere also exists.
  • Mytilus trossulus: North Pacific, northern parts of the North Atlantic, Baltic Sea.

Mytilus edulis, strict sense

The Atlantic blue mussel is native on the North American Atlantic coast, but is found intermixed with M. trossulus north of Maine. In Europe It is found from the French Atlantic coast northwards to Novaya Zemlya and Iceland, but not in the Baltic Sea. In France and in the British Isles, it makes hybrid zones with M. galloprovincialis, and also is sometimes intermixed with M. trossulus.

A genetically distinct lineage of M. edulis is present in the Southern Hemisphere, and has been attributed to subspecies Mytilus edulis platensis. This includes the Chilean mussel.

So, which creationist of those who have got this far is going to volunteer to explain how this is not an example of rapid evolution over a space of some fifteen years?

Further reading: Understanding Evolution
Musseling in on evolution

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All In The Name Of Jesus

Ever wonder why we do this; why we campaign to reduce, and hopefully abolish altogether, the influence of religion on our societies? Why we seek to avoid above all else the re-establishment of theocratic governments?

We do it because we have learnt what they are capable of doing should they ever again get the power to do so.

Be under no illusion that religions have reformed in some way and now realise the error of their ways. The only error they would acknowledge is the error in allowing us to take their power away from them; in preventing them from doing what they used to do and what they still demand the right to do again if only they weren't so unfairly persecuted by the 'Satanic forces' of liberal secularism.

Following on my blog on the 'Witches' of Salem, I came across this piece of writing by the wonderfully eloquent, and sadly late author and cosmologist, Carl Sagan, from "The Demon-haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark". It was quoted by Christopher Hitchens in "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer".

Read this to be reminded of what Christians did and what Christianity justified with scripture and even advocated when they had the power to do so. And be thankful for those liberal humanists and secularists who took away those powers from a kicking and screaming church and forced them to behave in a civilised way.

And be afraid. There is nothing to stop them doing the same again if ever they regain the power to do so.
Carl Sagan
From the beginning, much more was intended than demons as a mere poetic metaphor for evil in the hearts of men.

St. Augustine was much vexed with demons. He quotes the pagan thinking prevalent in his time: “The gods occupy the loftiest regions, men the lowest, the demons the middle region. . . . They have immortality of body, but passions of the mind in common with men.” In Book VIII of The City of God (begun in 413), Augustine assimilates this ancient tradition, replaces gods by God, and demonizes the demons—arguing that they are, without exception, malign. They have no redeeming virtues. They are the fount of all spiritual and material evil. He calls them “aerial animals . . . most eager to inflict harm, utterly alien from righteousness, swollen with pride, pale with envy, subtle in deceit.” They may profess to carry messages between God and man, disguising themselves as angels of the Lord, but this pose is a snare to lure us to our destruction. They can assume any form, and know many things—“demon” means “knowledge” in Greek—especially about the material world. However intelligent, they are deficient in charity. They prey on “the captive and outwitted minds of men,” wrote Tertullian. “They have their abode in the air, the stars are their neighbors, their commerce is with the clouds.”

In the eleventh century, the influential Byzantine theologian, philosopher, and shady politician, Michael Psellus, described demons in these words:
These animals exist in our own life, which is full of passions, for they are present abundantly in the passions, and their dwelling-place is that of matter, as is their rank and degree. For this reason they are also subject to passions and fettered to them.
One Richalmus, abbot of Schönthal, around 1270 penned an entire treatise on demons, rich in first-hand experience: He sees (but only when his eyes are shut) countless malevolent demons, like motes of dust, buzzing around his head—and everyone else’s. Despite successive waves of rationalist, Persian, Jewish, Christian, and Moslem world views, despite revolutionary social, political, and philosophical ferment, the existence, much of the character, and even the name of demons remained unchanged from Hesiod through the Crusades.

Richard Baxter
Demons, the “powers of the air,” come down from the skies and have unlawful sexual congress with women. Augustine believed that witches were the offspring of these forbidden unions. In the Middle Ages, as in classical antiquity, nearly everyone believed such stories. The demons were also called devils, or fallen angels. The demonic seducers of women were labeled incubi; of men, succubi. There are cases in which nuns reported, in some befuddlement, a striking resemblance between the incubus and the priest-confessor, or the bishop, and awoke the next morning, as one fifteenth-century chronicler put it, to “find themselves polluted just as if they had commingled with a man.” There are similar accounts, but in harems not convents, in ancient China. So many women reported incubi, argued the Presbyterian religious writer Richard Baxter (in his Certainty of the World of Spirits, 1691), “that ‘tis impudence to deny it.”

As they seduced, the incubi and succubi were perceived as a weight bearing down on the chest of the dreamer. Mare, despite its Latin meaning, is the Old English word for incubus, and nightmare meant originally the demon that sits on the chests of sleepers, tormenting them with dreams. In Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony (written around 360) demons are described as coming and going at will in locked rooms; 1400 years later, in his work De Daemonialitate, the Franciscan scholar Ludovico Sinistrari assures us that demons pass through walls.

The external reality of demons was almost entirely unquestioned from antiquity through late medieval times. Maimonides denied their reality, but the overwhelming majority of rabbis believed in dybbuks. One of the few cases I can find where it is even hinted that demons might be internal, generated in our minds, is when Abba Poemen—one of the desert fathers of the early Church—was asked, “How do the demons fight against me?”

“The demons fight against you?” Father Poemen asked in turn. “Our own wills become the demons, and it is these which attack us.”

The medieval attitudes on incubi and succubi were influenced by Macrobius’ fourth-century Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, which went through dozens of editions before the European Enlightenment. Macrobius described phantoms (phantasmata) seen “in the moment between wakefulness and slumber.” The dreamer “imagines” the phantoms as predatory. Macrobius had a skeptical side which his medieval readers tended to ignore.

Obsession with demons began to reach a crescendo when, in his famous Bull of 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared,
It has come to Our ears that members of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with evil angels, incubi, and succubi, and that by their sorceries, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and cause to perish the births of women
as well as generate numerous other calamities. With this Bull, Innocent initiated the systematic accusation, torture, and execution of countless “witches” all over Europe. They were guilty of what Augustine had described as “a criminal tampering with the unseen world.” Despite the evenhanded “members of both sexes” in the language of the Bull, unsurprisingly it was mainly girls and women who were so persecuted.

Sir William Blackstone
Many leading Protestants of the following centuries, their differences with the Catholic Church notwithstanding, adopted nearly identical views. Even humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More believed in witches. “The giving up of witchcraft,” said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, “is in effect the giving up of the Bible.” William Blackstone, the celebrated jurist, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), asserted:
To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God in various passages of both the Old and New Testament.
Innocent commended “Our dear sons Henry Kramer and James Sprenger,” who “have been by Letters Apostolic delegated as Inquisitors of these heretical [de]pravities.” If “the abominations and enormities in question remain unpunished,” the souls of multitudes face eternal damnation.

The pope appointed Kramer and Sprenger to write a comprehensive analysis, using the full academic armory of the late fifteenth century. With exhaustive citations of Scripture and of ancient and modern scholars, they produced the Malleus Maleficarum, the “Hammer of Witches”—aptly described as one of the most terrifying documents in human history. Thomas Ady, in A Candle in the Dark, condemned it as “villainous Doctrines & Inventions,” “horrible lyes and impossibilities,” serving to hide “their unparalleled cruelty from the ears of the world.” What the Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you’re accused of witchcraft, you’re a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations might be made for impious purposes—jealousy, say, or revenge, or the greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated for their own private benefit the property of the accused. This technical manual for torturers also includes methods of punishment tailored to release demons from the victim’s body before the process kills her. The Malleus in hand, the Pope’s encouragement guaranteed, inquisitors began springing up all over Europe.

Witches Hans Baldung Grien (1509)
It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of investigation, trial, and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives—down to per diems for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges, the travel expenses of a messenger sent to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, and the faggots, tar and hangman’s rope. Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch’s remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State. As this legally and morally sanctioned mass murder and theft became institutionalized, as a vast bureaucracy arose to serve it, attention was turned from poor hags and crones to the middle class and well-to-do of both sexes.

The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy. Since each “witch” was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially. These constituted “frightful proofs that the Devil is still alive,” as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials. In a credulous age, the most fantastic testimony was soberly accepted—that tens of thousands of witches had gathered for a Sabbath in public squares in France, or that 12,000 of them darkened the skies as they flew to Newfoundland. The Bible had counseled, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Legions of women were burnt to death. And the most horrendous tortures were routinely applied to every defendant, young or old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by the priests. Innocent himself died in 1492, following unsuccessful attempts to keep him alive by transfusion (which resulted in the deaths of three boys) and by suckling at the breast of a nursing mother. He was mourned by his mistress and their children.

In Britain witch-finders, also called “prickers,” were employed, receiving a handsome bounty for each girl or woman they turned over for execution. They had no incentive to be cautious in their accusations. Typically they looked for “devil’s marks”—scars or birthmarks or nevi—that when pricked with a pin neither hurt nor bled. A simple sleight of hand often gave the appearance that the pin penetrated deep into the witch’s flesh. When no visible marks were apparent, “invisible marks” sufficed. Upon the gallows, one mid-seventeenth-century pricker “confessed he had been the death of above 220 women in England and Scotland, for the gain of twenty shillings apiece.”

Execution of Witches 1587
In the witch trials, mitigating evidence or defense witnesses were inadmissible. In any case, it was nearly impossible to provide compelling alibis for accused witches: The rules of evidence had a special character. For example, in more than one case a husband attested that his wife was asleep in his arms at the very moment she was accused of frolicking with the devil at a witch’s Sabbath; but the archbishop patiently explained that a demon had taken the place of the wife. The husbands were not to imagine that their powers of perception could exceed Satan’s powers of deception. The beautiful young women were perforce consigned to the flames.

There were strong erotic and misogynistic elements—as might be expected in a sexually repressed, male-dominated society with inquisitors drawn from the class of nominally celibate priests. The trials paid close attention to the quality and quantity of orgasm in the supposed copulations of defendants with demons or the Devil (although Augustine had been certain “we cannot call the Devil a fornicator”), and to the nature of the Devil’s “member” (cold, by all reports). “Devil’s marks” were found “generally on the breasts or private parts” according to Ludovico Sinistrari’s 1700 book. As a result pubic hair was shaved, and the genitalia were carefully inspected by the exclusively male inquisitors. In the immolation of the 20-year-old Joan of Arc, after her dress had caught fire the Hangman of Rouen slaked the flames so onlookers could view “all the secrets which can or should be in a woman.”

The chronicle of those who were consumed by fire in the single German city of Würzburg in the single year 1598 penetrates the statistics and lets us confront a little of the human reality:
The steward of the senate named Gering; old Mrs. Kanzler; the tailor’s fat wife; the woman cook of Mr. Mengerdorf; a stranger; a strange woman; Baunach, a senator, the fattest citizen in Würtzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; Liebler’s daughter; Goebel’s child, the most beautiful girl in Würtzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minster, each twelve years old; Stepper’s little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; an old woman; the little son of the town council bailiff; the wife of Knertz, the butcher; the infant daughter of Dr. Schultz; a little girl; Schwartz, canon at Hach. . . .
On and on it goes. Some were given special humane attention: “The little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and burnt.” There were 28 public immolations, each with 4 to 6 victims on average, in that small city in a single year. This was a microcosm of what was happening all across Europe. No one knows how many were killed altogether—perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Those responsible for prosecuting, torturing, judging, burning, and justifying were selfless. Just ask them.

They could not be mistaken. The confessions of witchcraft could not be based on hallucinations, say, or desperate attempts to satisfy the inquisitors and stop the torture. In such a case, explained the witch judge Pierre de Lancre (in his 1612 book, Description of the Inconstancy of Evil Angels), the Catholic Church would be committing a great crime by burning witches. Those who raise such possibilities are thus attacking the Church and ipso facto committing a mortal sin. Critics of witch-burning were punished and, in some cases, themselves burnt. The inquisitors and torturers were doing God’s work. They were saving souls. They were foiling demons.

Witchcraft of course was not the only offense that merited torture and burning at the stake. Heresy was a still more serious crime, and both Catholics and Protestants punished it ruthlessly. In the sixteenth century the scholar William Tyndale had the temerity to contemplate translating the New Testament into English. But if people could actually read the Bible in their own language instead of arcane Latin, they could form their own, independent religious views. They might conceive of their own private unintermediated line to God. This was a challenge to the job security of Roman Catholic priests. When Tyndale tried to publish his translation, he was hounded and pursued all over Europe. Eventually he was captured, garroted, and then, for good measure, burned at the stake. His copies of the New Testament (which a century later became the basis of the exquisite King James translation) were then hunted down house-to-house by armed posses—Christians piously defending Christianity by preventing other Christians from knowing the words of Christ. Such a cast of mind, such a climate of absolute confidence that knowledge should be rewarded by torture and death were unlikely to help those accused of witchcraft.

Burning witches is a feature of Western civilization that has, with occasional political exceptions, declined since the sixteenth century. In the last judicial execution of witches in England a woman and her nine-year-old daughter were hanged. Their crime was raising a rainstorm by taking their stockings off. In our time, witches and djinns are found as regular fare in children’s entertainment, exorcism of demons is still practiced by the Roman Catholic and other churches, and the proponents of one cult still denounce as sorcery the cultic practices of another. We still use the word “pandemonium” (literally, all demons). A crazed and violent person is still said to be demonic. (Not until the eighteenth century was mental illness no longer generally ascribed to supernatural causes; even insomnia had been considered a punishment inflicted by demons.) More than half of Americans tell pollsters they “believe” in the Devil’s existence, and 10 percent have communicated with him, as Martin Luther reported he did regularly. In a 1992 “spiritual warfare manual” called Prepare for War, Rebecca Brown informs us that abortion and sex outside of marriage “will almost always result in demonic infestation”; that meditation, yoga and martial arts are designed so unsuspecting Christians will be seduced into worshiping demons; and that “rock music didn’t ‘just happen,’ it was a carefully master-minded plan by none other than Satan himself.” Sometimes “your loved ones are demonically bound and blinded.” Demonology is today still part and parcel of many earnest faiths.

And what is it that demons do? In the Malleus, Kramer and Sprenger reveal that “devils . . . busy themselves by interfering with the process of normal copulation and conception, by obtaining human semen, and themselves transferring it.” Demonic artificial insemination in the Middle Ages goes back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, who tells us in On the Trinity that “demons can transfer the semen which they have collected and inject it into the bodies of others.” His contemporary, St. Bonaventura, spells it out in a little more detail: Succubi “yield to males and receive their semen; by cunning skill, the demons preserve its potency, and afterwards, with the permission of God, they become incubi and pour it out into female repositories.” The products of these demon-mediated unions are also, when they grow up, visited by demons. A multi-generational transspecies sexual bond is forged. And these creatures, we recall, are well known to fly; indeed they inhabit the upper air.

There is no spaceship in these stories. But most of the central elements of the alien abduction account are present, including sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments on the human species. Unless we believe that demons really exist, how can we understand so strange a belief system, embraced by the whole Western world (including those considered the wisest among us), reinforced by personal experience in every generation, and taught by Church and State? Is there any real alternative besides a shared delusion based on common brain wiring and chemistry?

Carl Sagan quoted in
Hitchens, Christopher (2007-12-10).
The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (pp. 219-225).
Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

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