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Skeptical Sex in the City

A number of you have sent e-mails regarding last Sunday’s episode of HBO’s Sex in the City, in which one of the main characters tries to get in to see a leading cancer doctor and finds herself sitting in the waiting room next to a nun who is reading my book, How We Believe. Several people commented that this seemed a little odd, to say the least, and that perhaps the show’s producers didn’t realize what I wrote in the book. In fact, the nun was played by Julia Sweeney, a one-time hardcore catholic, converted to skepticism after reading, among many books, How We Believe! The producers wanted the nun to be sitting there reading something, and Julia thought it would be ironically cool to be actually reading the book that led her down the path of righteous skepticism. I originally met Julia when we were both guests on Politically Incorrect, and she has since become something of a public spokesperson for skepticism through her wonderful monologue show “Letting Go of God,” originally commissioned by me and performed at Caltech as “The God Monologue,” one of the best shows we have ever hosted (and available on video and audio at

LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process:
The Role of Hallucinogens in Tribal and Modern Peoples

Dr. Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Medical Anthropologist
California State University, Fullerton

Sunday, January 25th, 2004, 2:00 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall,
Caltech (Pasadena, California)

In this lecture based on her latest book, medical anthropologist Dr. Marlene Dobkin de Rios presents for the first time the results of one of the longest clinical studies of LSD ever undertaken—the 8-year study by L.A. psychiatrist Dr. Oscar Janiger with 950 subjects—and considers the implications for LSD’s influence on creativity, imagination, and spirituality, and for what it teaches us about how the mind works. She also explores the use of hallucinogens in indigenous peoples, particularly those she worked with in the Amazon, and the role they play in shamanic healing, animism, and spirituality.

Dr. Marlene Dobkin de Rios is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Visionary Vine: Hallucinogenic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon, Hallucinogens: Cross Cultural Perspective, Amazon Healing: The Life and Times of a Peruvian Shaman, and LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process.

Book signing to follow lecture. For directions contact 626-794-3119.

Mad Cow Update

After the last eSkeptic that featured an article skeptical of the mad cow scare, I received a number of e-mails skeptical of the mad cow skeptic. As a consequence, I refer you to Science magazine for another perspective:

Some diners may be shunning steaks, but the discovery last month of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a U.S. cow has whetted many people’s appetites for information about the disease. This chapter from an online microbiology text introduces the set of lethal, brain-wrecking illnesses that includes BSE, fatal familial insomnia, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), one form of which spreads through meat from BSE-infected cattle (above). The primer also describes prions, rogue proteins hypothesized to trigger these illnesses by deforming a normal brain protein.

Find out more about BSE and its human equivalent, variant CJD, at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can read the case history of the only patient diagnosed with vCJD in the United States, a 22-year-old Florida resident who grew up in Britain and likely ate meat from an infected animal. For additional facts on the symptoms and neurological toll of vCJD, check out the site from the CJD Surveillance Unit, which tallies the number of cases in the United Kingdom. As of December 2003, doctors had identified 143 vCJD patients, 137 of whom had died.

RESOURCES: Mad Cow Roundup (Science Magazine, Volume 303, Number 5656, January 2004, ISBN 0060097957)

The following is Tim Callahan’s review of Doubt: A History, by Jennifer Michael Hecht (Harper, 2003, San Francisco).

A Stunning Chronicle of Unbelievers

a book review by Tim Callahan

Although there exists today a flourishing skeptical movement that, if one includes the scientific, secular, and humanist communities, encompasses a sizable portion of humanity, little has been done to chronicle the history of skepticism and the process of doubt that drives all human knowledge. In her hefty tome Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht has produced a comprehensive and scholarly history of skepticism from the ancients to the moderns (and even postmoderns, as it were).

It has long been an unspoken assumption that, outside of a few notable Greeks and Romans, widespread, outspoken doubt in the reality of God and other supernatural entities began only in the Renaissance, picked up speed in the Enlightenment, and didn’t really hit its stride until the late 19th century. While Jennifer Michael Hecht does begin with the Greeks, her lively, encyclopedic history also encompasses works of doubt among the ancient Jews and the materialist, atheist philosophy of the Carvaka, who flourished in India ca. 600 BCE. That this latter blossomed in the land that gave us gurus, karma, and the theology of reincarnation—many of the staples of New Age spiritual belief—is a stunning affirmation of the universality of healthy doubt in the human race.

Hecht points out that when we read history we tend to focus on periods of certainty at the pinnacles of civilizations and tend to give only passing regard to the in-between times, which is when doubt is most likely to flourish. Thus, the incidence of doubt among the Greeks increased greatly in the Hellenistic Period (ca. 330-30 BCE), which fell between the golden age of the Greek city-states and the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean world. However, notable examples of doubt did appear in the Hellenic period, most likely flowing from rational secularization of a culture too overburdened with a plethora of gods. The poet Xenophanes of Colophon (570-475 BCE) pointed out that not only were the Greek gods far too fallible to be divine, they were also too Greek. That the Ethiopians pictured their gods as black and the Thracians, noted for their red hair, pictured their gods as red-headed indicated to Xenophanes that the gods were creations of their worshipers rather than the other way around. Democritus of Abdara (ca. 460-370 BCE) was another atheist philosopher famous for devising the concept of the atom (Gr. “indivisible”) , which stood in stark contrast to the old idea of the four elements (fire, air, water, earth). Hecht also notes that, while both Plato and Aristotle conceived of a cosmos created and ordered by divine agency, their deities were so abstract as to make their philosophies effectively naturalistic.

It was in the Hellenistic period, however, that doubt really began to flower. The empire building of Alexander the Great thoroughly disrupted social structures, replacing localized self-sufficient states with sprawling, cosmopolitan empires. At the same time the traditional concept of deity was further debased when, after an epiphany in Egypt, the great conqueror decided that he was the incarnation of Zeus-Ammon, a merging of the ruling deities of the pantheons of Greece and Egypt. His example was followed by his successors in the various Hellenistic dynasties, who sported such epithets as theos (god), soter (savior) and epiphanes ([divine] manifestation). The destruction of the Greek polis as a small, self-sufficient, independent power structure controlled by its local citizenry went hand in hand with the rise of these self-aggrandizing, self-deifying, serni-orientalized dynasties. Over this early form of emperor worship there arose what Hecht calls “graceful-life” philosophies (pp. 29-30):

Their goals were practical happiness, and they were not merely theoretical about it: they provided community, meditations, and events. In this they were more like religions, but they did not identify themselves as religions and they had remarkably little use for God or gods.

The Hellenistic graceful-life philosophies had a lot in common. The experience of doubt in a heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world is a bit like being lost in a forest, unendingly beckoned by a thousand possible routes. At every juncture, with every step, one is confronted with alternative paths, so that the second-guessing becomes more infuriating even than the fact of being lost. After a direction is chosen, one is constantly met with another tree in one’s path.

What do you do if you come from a culture that had a powerful sense of home and local value, and now you are lost in something vast and sprawling, meaningless and strange? The stronger your belief in that half-remembered home, the more likely you are to panic, to grow claustrophobic among the trees and beneath the skyless canopy. Hellenistic men and women felt a desperate desire to get out of the seemingly endless, friendless woods. The graceful-life philosophies produced a rescue mission for those lost in the woods and bone-tired of searching for home.

The “graceful-life” philosophies included the Cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Skeptics. The Cynics’ name derives from the Greek word for “dog,” and their goal was to live like dogs, without shame or worry over social convention. Their founder, Diogenes, took shelter in large public storage jugs, renouncing all possessions and abandoning all social conventions, including formal worship. His famous encounter with Alexander the Great emphasized this. When the emperor offered him nearly anything he wanted to seduce him away from his philosophy, Diogenes asked him to move, as he was blocking the philosopher’s sunlight.

The Stoics, founded by Zeno, focused on that which was within one’s power to control and to be detached from and inured to the suffering one must experience from that which is not. Epicurus said that it was not only possible to be virtuous in the chaotic world, but happy as well. He taught that the main obstacles to happiness were fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the gods. Since he saw death as an unconscious sleep he did not see it as something to be feared. He also argued that pain is either intense but short-lived or chronic but mild. Therefore, there was no reason to fear either kind of pain. That which was intense would be over soon, and that which was chronic could easily be borne. As to the gods, they simply didn’t exist. His famous maxim on evil and human suffering—that they shouldn’t exist if the gods cared about us and were capable of expunging suffering from the world, or that the gods were either evil or impotent to avert it—remains an unanswerable argument against the existence of God to this day (called theodicy, or the problem of evil).

The Skeptics, founded by Pyrrho of Elis (365-275 BCE) argued that we can know nothing for sure, therefore it is wiser not to have opinions, not to affirm or deny any doctrine, but to stand aloof of the world. This did not keep the Skeptics from debating. However, rather than trying to prove and defend a doctrine, they pointed out how many supposed philosophical proofs for the existence of a god were fallacious. Chief among these was the argument that the beauty and complexity of creation implied a creator, known today as the “watchmaker argument. To this, Skeptic philosopher Carneades of Cyrene (213-129 BCE) responded that he saw little of beauty and intelligence at work in poisonous snakes, horrific diseases, and tidal waves. The Stoics had argued that intelligence was God’s greatest gift to humanity. Carneades countered by asking why the deity was so partial and uneven in the distribution of that gift.

That doubt should have flourished among the ancient Greeks is no surprise. However, the ancient Jews are usually seen as staunch believers. Hecht cites the books of Job and Ecclesiastes as prime examples of Jewish doubt, which, not surprisingly, reflected the impact of Hellenistic culture on the Jews. The book of Job is widely celebrated as one of the great works dealing with the monotheistic problem of suffering: Why is there evil and suffering in a world created by a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent god? What tends to be glossed over by those praising the book is that God never gives a decent reason for the sufferings of the virtuous and upright Job. Instead, he blasts Job by saying, in effect, “Who are you, little man, to demand answers of me?” One reason this dodge is overlooked is the beauty and majesty of the verses when God answers Job out of the whirlwind. For example, consider Job 38:4-7:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched a line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

This poem goes on for four chapters, with God’s paean to his own greatness only interrupted once by Job, who says he is of little account (Job 40:3-5), and capped by Job marveling at God’s greatness at the end (Job 42:1-6). It is a truly beautiful piece, but it fails to answer the Epicurean objection. Ecclesiastes shares with Job some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, but its message is one of utter cynical hopelessness. Our lives are vain and pointless precisely because God is omnipotent. The author recognized that if God knows and controls everything, there can be no chance. Everything is preordained. If this is true, then we really can have no free will. Since God has already made all the choices for us, there can be none for us to make. Not only that, there is no justice in the world. Neither virtue nor merit is necessarily rewarded. For all his omnipotence, God doesn’t seem to care much what happens to people. The solution to this depressing state of affairs is to enjoy the simple pleasures of one’s admittedly vain life. As Hecht notes, this sounds rather Epicurean.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the chapter on Jewish doubt, however, is Hecht’s take on the Maccabean revolt. This has mostly been depicted as a David and Goliath struggle, with the Maccabees portrayed as freedom fighters miraculously toppling a tyrannical and corrupt regime. The author points out that the Hellenistic influence was likely corrupting to the Jewish religion because its freedom, intellectual richness and worldliness were seductive to the people, just as secular society is seductive to the youth of traditional, religiously constrictive cultures today. Hecht points out that in the name of purity the Maccabees, once they had regained control of the Jewish state, brutally enforced religious strictures on those Jews who had been overly Hellenized. For example, they forcibly circumcised Jewish men whose parents had not had them circumcised as infants.

Hecht moves from Jewish doubt Asian skepticism. The Hindu religion taught that by the use of certain disciplines, each called a yoga (literally a “yoke”), one could overcome the illusory temptations of sensual existence, discover one’s true self and eventually, after a number of reincarnations, attain nirvana, a state of ecstatic union with the godhead. What one did in one life affected one’s position in the next, piling up good or bad karma. One effect of such a belief system is a callousness toward human suffering: If you’re born into poverty and misery in this fife, it’s probably because you did something to deserve such a fate in a previous life.

As early as 600 BCE reaction against this system took the form of a doctrine called Lokayata, whose adherents were called the Carvaka. Though all of their works were destroyed, Hecht notes that we know of their doctrines because their enemies, in denouncing them, quoted the Carvaka rather extensively. Quite surprisingly, the Carvaka taught that there was no afterlife whatsoever. When the body died, consciousness ended. There was no spiritual force, no karma, no point in disciplines involving fasting or asceticism. Life was reduced to pleasure and pain.

Hecht references a play called The Rise of the Moon Intellect, in which Materialist and Pupil scoff at the deliberate bodily deprivations of ascetic disciplines (p. 97):

On being told of the behavior of such ascetics, Pupil asks why anyone would renounce sensual pleasures and submit to physical pain? His teacher replies that it is ridiculous to do so, for how can fasting and exposure compare with “the ravishing embraces of women with large eyes, whose prominent breasts are compressed with one’s arms.”

The Carvaka also took a thoroughly pragmatic view of ethics. There being no great rewards or punishments in any afterlife and no gods to enforce justice, the only reason to act with any degree of kindness was that it is functional, as opposed to the chaos of lawlessness.

While Jainism and Buddhism maintained ascetic disciplines, they too reacted against the Hindu system and produced what are effectively religions without gods. Of the two, Buddhism is far more successful, though Hecht notes that Jainism still exists in the Indian homeland where both were born, while Buddhism does not. The Buddha was born ca. 566 BCE as Siddhartha Gautama, a prince whose father kept him (so the story goes), in the confines of the palace, separated from all experience of pain and suffering. Slipping the bonds of his princely confinement one day, Siddhartha was appalled at the suffering he found and impressed by the serenity of a holy ascetic. He left his palace, studied raja yoga and took up the ascetic way of life. One day a woman offered him a bowl of milk, which he gulped down to his own surprise and was struck by the revelation that fasting was no better than feasting. There is no true self, and once we gave up attachment to it we are free to serenely experience the real world without the noise of illusions and preconceptions. In China at about the same time, Hecht notes, Taoism and Confucianism arose as naturalist philosophies. Both eventually became encumbered with minor deities, as did certain forms of Buddhism, yet all three began as essentially godless religions.

Hecht now returns to the west for an examination of Roman doubt, which continued much of the philosophical tradition of the Hellenistic period. Roman religion had always been something of a state function, an observance of rituals performed as social functions rather than anything that touched the soul. Belief and doubt in the Roman Empire formed a melange of local nature cults, transcendent mystery religions—such as Mithraism and the cult of Isis and Osiris—and the graceful-life philosophies. All this changed when monotheism triumphed over polytheism and Christianity became the state religion.

As Hecht notes, Jesus, in transcending Jewish law, made belief, rather than particular doctrine, the central issue. Eventually, this spelled the end of doubt as a cultural force. In 391 rioting Christians destroyed the Serapeum, a pagan temple housing part of the great library of Alexandria. For the Christians, the graceful-life philosophies were all demonic deceptions, and the hardening of orthodox Christian doctrine under imperial sponsorship led to the suppression of all its rivals—not only the mystery religions, but secular philosophy as well. This culminated in the brutal murder of Hypatia at the hands of Christian monks, probably operating under orders from Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria in CE 451.

This did not mean the end of doubt, however. Hecht points out that skepticism arose in Islam following the flowering of its cosmopolitan culture, spreading from them to the Jews of Moslem Spain and from thence into Western Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages. When Muhammad (570-632) founded his faith it was, like Judaism and Christianity, a revealed religion. That is to say, it came to him as a divine revelation. As revelations are generally delivered in commands, either tacitly or explicitly, they are not to be disputed.

For all that, by the 800s there was a healthy skepticism in Islam, resulting from its rapid spread and its absorption of the cosmopolitan cultures of the Near East, which had preserved the works of the Greek philosophers. A group of Muslim philosophers called the Faylasufs, whose movement was called Falsafah, adopted Greek philosophy and claimed that the God of Aristotle was identical to Allah. This opened the way for questioning the validity of the Koran both by the Faylasufs and other Moslem philosophers. Ibn al-Rawandi used the argument of Aristotle that the universe was eternal, as a refutation of God creating the world. In Kitab al-Zumurrud (The Book of the Emerald) he holds a conversation with his mentor, Muhammed al-Warraq, in which al-Warraq refers to God as an idiot for ordering people to do what they are incapable of, then punishing them for failing. As with the Carvaka in India, the works of al-Warraq were destroyed, and The Book of the Emerald only survives in detailed descriptions of it. Another great Muslim doubter of the period was Abu Bakr al-Razi (854-925), who wrote such works as The Prophet’s Fraudulent Tricks, and decried the wars that resulted from religious differences between those who claimed divine revelation. The greatest of the Faylasufs, Ali ibn Sina, is known in the west as Avicenna (980-1037). He merged Aristotelian ideas with those of Neoplatonism, and essentially reduced the god of Islam to a depersonalized source of divine emanations.

Aristotelian thought was brought west by Walid ibn Ahmed ibn Rushd, better known as Averroes, who lived in Morocco and Spain from 1126 and 1198. His writings transmitted philosophical speculation to Jewish thinkers of Spain, who, in their turn, mixed Greek philosophy into Rabbinical Judaism. The greatest of these was Rabbi Moses ibn Maimon, known in the west as Maimonides (1135-1205). He reconciled Greek philosophy with the Bible by arguing that the myths of the latter were necessary for social structure and law, but that they were not meant to be taken literally. He saw God as essentially unknowable.

Maimonides’ philosophy was taken up by Levi ben Greshom, known as Gersonides (1288-1344) in southern France. The Arabic preservation of Greek thought was then transmitted to Christians and flowered into the teachings of Scholasticism, culminating in the works of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). His synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology established the ideal of a rational defense of theology and established Greek rules of logic in Medieval arguments. Aquinas was eventually sainted, and Thomistic arguments are still used by believers today as a defense against skeptics. This in turn provided the means and arena for skeptics such as William of Ockham (d. 1349), who rejected the Aristotelian arguments for the existence of God and, of course, gave us Occam’s Razor, that wonderful scalpel of rational skepticism.

This brings Hecht’s chronicle roughly to its halfway point. The rest of the book deals with material most of us are more familiar with; therefore, I will only summarize it briefly, though its richness of detail is even greater than that of the first half of the book. (The sheer detail of Hecht’s narrative is often overwhelming.) Briefly, the author describes the explosion of knowledge in the Renaissance fueled by the printing press; the reaction against doubters and skeptics that culminated in the Inquisition and religious wars; the further flowering of the doubt in the Enlightenment, and the great popularization of secular belief in the nineteenth century. The chapter dealing with the 19th century, “Doubt’s bid for a Better World,” spans 56 pages and details the role of doubt in science, literature and politics, including Darwin’s theory of evolution, the poets of the Romantic movement, the growth of feminism and democracy, the works of Freud and Marx, and, finally, the emergence of the secular state.

Hecht ends her history with a chapter on the 20th century, and conservative reactions to the secularization of culture, including the insertion in 1956 of the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and the Islamic reaction to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In her conclusion, “The Joy of Doubt,” she summarizes the history of doubt and celebrates its role in stimulating the intellectual growth of civilization.

This book almost needs to be a multivolume work, and its chapters are often overlong. However, multivolume works tend, like other encyclopedias, to gather dust on library shelves. What Hecht has done is to popularize a history that has often been overlooked. I was particularly surprised by her description of the Carvaka of India and the Faylesuf of Islam. Though their works were censored and destroyed, and though some of the Faylesuf were put to death for their beliefs, the boldness of their skepticism, even the fact that they existed at all in such settings as ancient India and medieval Islam, are truly inspiring. Hecht has done us all a service in revealing the great and neglected history of doubt.

1 Comment »

One Comment

  1. seducir a una mujer says:

    Once again an excellent written post from you. Keep it up!

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