From Walden to Wilders to Wisecracks

Thank Science for the Internet!

With it, for example, a stimulating virtual tour of Walden Pond is just a click away.

In my experiences, the virtual tour of Walden Pond is as stimulating as being there – and if you have fond memories of your own special part of nature, then maybe the virtual tour is even better than reality.

For Henry David Thoreau (1817–62), Walden Pond was his own special part of nature – and of reality. In 1845 he borrowed an ax, bought $28.12½ worth of building materials, and built himself a cabin adjacent to Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts (on land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson). For the next two years and two months, the cabin was Thoreau’s home.

While at Walden Pond, Thoreau refused to pay taxes, because he was opposed to slavery, the poll tax, the Mexican war, and the Massachusetts’ religious tax, as he explained in his 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience”. Below is a little from his famous essay, in which I’ve taken the liberty to try to modernize some spelling and punctuation.
I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster…

It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case…

I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies. And so a man…

I think sometimes, “Why, this people mean well; they are only ignorant; they would do better if they knew how. Why give your neighbors this pain to treat you as they are not inclined to?” But I think, again, “This is no reason why I should do as they do, or permit others to suffer much greater pain of a different kind.”

Again, I sometimes say to myself, “When many millions of men, without heat, without ill-will, without personal feeling of any kind, demand of you a few shillings only, without the possibility (such is their constitution) of retracting or altering their present demand and without the possibility (on your side) of appeal to any other millions, why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities; you do not put your head into the fire.”

But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible… But if I put my head deliberately into the fire, there is no appeal… and I have only myself to blame. If I could convince myself that I have any right to be satisfied with men as they are, and to treat them accordingly, and not according (in some respects) to my requisitions and expectations of what they and I ought to be, then (like a good Muslim and fatalist) I should endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are, and say it is the will of God.

And above all, there is this difference between resisting this and a purely brute or natural force: that I can resist this with some effect. But I cannot expect, like Orpheus, to change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts.
As for why, in the first place, Thoreau chose to leave Concord and live in a cabin, in his 1854 book Walden, or Life in the Woods, he explained:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, [to] see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
In his 1854 review of Walden, A.P. Peabody wrote:
The economical details and calculations in this book are more curious than useful; for the author’s life in the woods was on too narrow a scale to find imitators. But… [Thoreau] says so many pithy and brilliant things, and offers so many piquant, and, we may add, so many just, comments on society as it is, that this book is well worth the reading, both for its actual contents and its suggestive capacity.
For example, there’s Thoreau’s:
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.
Some of those who were influenced by Thoreau to “strike… at the root [of evil]” included leaders of the anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, and trade unionist movements, as well as Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In contrast, the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders (leader of his “Freedom Party”, which won nine of 150 seats of the lower house in the 2006 elections) has recently been busy “hacking at the branches of evil.”

The particular branch of the evil tree of religion on which Wilders has been hacking away is Islam. In multiple ways he’s let it be known that soon he’ll release a 10-minute film he has produced in which he promises to promote his quoted ideas that the Koran is a “frightful and fascist” book, a “fascist book inciting hatred and killing”, and that “it should be banned, just like [Hitler’s] Mein Kampf”, which is the only book whose distribution is banned in the Netherlands. As you probably know, Muslims worldwide have begun to react violently to Wilders’ plan.

This week, in a letter to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskant, Wilders wrote:
If I had announced that I was going to make a film about the fascist character of the Bible would there have been a crisis meeting of Holland’s security forces? Would I have received as many death threats as I have done since announcing I was making a film about the Koran? Of course not. The fact that a 10-minute film not yet shown could, according to some, lead to economic boycotts, riots and other horrible things says everything about the nature of Islam. Nothing about me…
Well, actually, I disagree: it says (or at least suggests) quite a bit about Wilders.

• It suggests that he’s hacking away at only one branch on the tree of religious evil, while standing on another branch of the same tree; thus, even though it has been stated that “he considers himself an atheist”, notice that every webpage behind the homepage at his site ends with the phrase “God bless [the] PVV [Partij Voor de Vrijheid, i.e., Wilders’ Party for Freedom].”

• It suggests that he’s a hypocrite, because if he has read the Bible (and he might be expected to have read it, given that he was raised a Roman Catholic and he “received his secondary education at the… R.K. St. Thomas College”), then he would know that the Bible is also a “fascist book inciting hatred and killing”; therefore, he could equally well advocate banning the Bible.

• And most importantly, if his prime goal is to gain more political power to prevent the Islamization of the Netherlands, then it suggests that he’s chosen to hack at the branches of the tree of religious evil rather than chop at the trunk or dig at the roots.

Nonetheless, I agree with Wilders that the Koran is a “fascist book inciting hatred and killing” and that “Islam is not a religion; it’s an ideology” – as is Christianity (but not Judaism or Hinduism), in the sense that the word ‘ideology’ (but not ‘religion’) has come to mean promoting the widespread adoption of a set of ideas.

Also, I certainly agree with Wilders and disagree with the Dutch Foreign Minister, Maxime Verhagen, who tried to criticize Wilders with the foolish remark: “…freedom of expression doesn’t mean the right to offend.” As Salman Rushdie wrote:
At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible…

It does matter. People have the fundamental right to take an argument to the point where somebody is offended by what they say. It’s no trick to support the free speech of somebody you agree with or to whose opinion you are indifferent. The defense of free speech begins at the point when people say something you can’t stand. If you can’t defend their right to say it, then you don’t believe in free speech. You only believe in free speech as long as it doesn’t get up your nose. But free speech does get up people’s noses.
Earlier, H.L. Mencken (1880–1956) said similar:
The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected… We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.
Yet, although I support Wilders’ goal, I don’t support his plan to hack at only one branch of the evil religious tree: not only is it futile, it’s probably worse than useless.

Further and unfortunately, it’s been found to be essentially pointless to try to chop at the trunk of the tree: the wood is hard and our axes blunt – and the damnable clerics of the world have erected a huge barrier around the tree to protect their own parasitic existence. Capable con artists that they are, they’ve capitalized on the people’s ignorance, grief, fear, herd instinct, etc., they’ve offered their faithful flocks fanciful solace and fictitious rewards, and the obedient fools then indoctrinate their children in the clerics’ balderdash. So, the vicious cycle of ignorance continues for still another impenetrable generation.

Many brave axmen have attacked the trunk of the tree, from the Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates, to Epicurus and Seneca the Younger, and from Robert Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, and many more, to Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Karl Marx made some progress, but the cost in sweat and blood was incalculable. He wrote:
Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Substantial quantities of data (historical and current) support his subsequent claim that improving economic conditions would and will weaken religions, but other data show that it’s not enough. For example, most of the 9/11 and other terrorists were not economically deprived – nor was bin Laden.

But Marx also saw that alleviating economic hardships would be insufficient to eliminate religion:
Criticism [of religion] has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses…

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
But it’s not enough to criticize religion: to describe all religions as infected legalism, polluted and putrefying politics, and discredited, defunct science is just hacking at the branches and ineffectually chopping at the trunk. In reality it’s been found, in most cases, that such criticism is worse than useless, since it just stimulates the bunker mentality of the religious – as illustrated by the reactions to the Danish cartoons and the recent reactions even to suggestions about Wilders’ film. Thus, rather than examine their beliefs, religious fanatics explode bombs wrapped around their waists and fly hijacked airliners into skyscrapers – so they can continue to waste their lives within their religious fantasies and worse, by far, maim and kill others in the process.

Yet, in addition to hacking at the branches and chopping at the trunk of the evil religious tree, many people have, in fact, made substantial efforts digging out its roots – again including the Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates and so on, and including Freud, who wrote:
While the different religions wrangle with one another as to which of them is in possession of the truth, in our view the truth of religion may be altogether disregarded. Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. But it cannot achieve its end. Its doctrines carry with them the stamp of the times in which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of the human race. Its consolations deserve no trust. Experience teaches us that the world is not a nursery… If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.
Digging still deeper, the huge problem encountered is the enormous number of roots that feed the evil religious tree, including (as I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog) power mongering of clerical leaders, pandering by politicians, male chauvinism, misogyny, and worst of all, child abuse. Further, beneath it all – indeed, not just in the root system but within the very moisture of the soil that nourish the roots – is the root cause of all religions, namely, ignorance.

One of the brave souls digging at the ignorant source of religion – one of the bravest of the brave (whom the FBI should be protecting) – is the American-psychiatrist Wafa Sultan, born and educated in Syria. Here’s some of what she said on Al-Jazeera TV on 21 Feb. 2006:
Why does a young Muslim man, in the prime of life, with a full life ahead, go and blow himself up? In our countries, religion is the sole source of education and is the only spring from which that terrorist drank until his thirst was quenched.
More than 2400 years ago, Socrates succinctly summarized similar ideas:
There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.
Further, at his bogus trial, after he was convicted of the trumped-up charge, “Socrates is guilty of not believing in the gods in which the state believes, but brings in other new divinities; he also wrongs by corrupting the youth”, Socrates reportedly said:
To fear death, gentlemen, is nothing else than to think one is wise when one is not; for it is thinking one knows what one does not know. For no one knows whether death be not even the greatest of all blessings to man, but they fear it as if they knew that is the greatest of evils. And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know?
And yet, just as in Socrates’ day and before, the clerics of the world continue to be guilty of “the most reprehensible form of ignorance”, claiming that they know what they don’t. In fact, they provide little evidence that they even know what ‘knowledge’ means.

Therefore, if Wilders (or anyone) would seek to banish religious ignorance from their nation (or preferably, from the world), the best way to dig out the roots of the evil religious tree is to ensure that all children are taught how to develop their own “critical-thinking” (or “evaluative-thinking” or "scientific-thinking”) skills, which is a topic that I recently addressed elsewhere. In a nutshell, the skill is to apply the scientific method in one’s daily life, and thereby, to hold beliefs only as strongly as relevant evidence warrants. If everyone did that, the evil tree of organized religions would soon wither away.

Unfortunately, however, the clerics have hatched a hideous Catch-22. For obvious reasons, they oppose “their” children learning critical-thinking skills. You can’t keep a con game running for more than 5,000 years by permitting people to think for themselves! Therefore, to break free from the clerics’ Catch 22, to exit their vicious circle, to strike at the roots of their evil, more must be done: the acidic soil on which religion and the clerics feed must be buffered.

To buffer that acidic soil, it’s critical to recognize that religion isn’t rational; it feeds on emotions. As C.W. Dalton wrote in his 1990 book The Right Brain and Religion:
Believers are interested in fulfilling emotional and spiritual needs, not intellectual needs. In some cases, one might as well try to use reason on a dog. For many people God is primarily a warm feeling. How can one argue with a warm feeling? Arguing with someone who places reason below faith and biblical authority is blowing against the wind.
Actually, though, there is an effective way to “argue with a warm feeling”. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp on 30 July 1816:
Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them…
Stated differently: the most effective way to “argue with a warm feeling” is with another feeling; in particular, the cold feeling generated in religious people when they are ridiculed for having been so foolish as to buy into a con game perpetrated by a bunch of clueless clerics. As H.L. Mencken (the most famous of the reporters at the Scopes trial) wrote:
The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.
In her appearance this week on Al-Jazeera TV, in remarks for which Al-Jazeera has subsequently and unfortunately (but understandably) issued its “deepest apologies” for comments that “offended Islam”, Wafa Sultan saw some of it:
The Muslim is an irrational creature ruled by instincts. Those teachings have deprived him of his mind, incited his emotions, and reduced him to the level of an inferior creature that cannot control himself or react to events rationally…

If you want to change the course of events, you must reexamine your terrorist teachings, you must recognize and respect the right of the other to live, you must teach your children love, peace, coexistence, and productive work. When you do that, the world will respect you, will consider you in a better light, and will draw you in a better light.
But I think that H.L. Mencken saw it and said it more clearly:
The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe – that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.
Therefore, my recommendation to Wilders would be that, if he wants to help both his homeland and humanity, then he shouldn’t release his film criticizing the Koran. Not that the criticism isn’t correct, but it’ll just harden the Muslims’ bunker mentality. Instead, he should (for example) hire some competent comedians whose wisecracks would ridicule all religions, excoriate all clerics, and most importantly, get all who bought into their clerics' con games rolling in the aisles -- not in some religious trance but laughing at themselves for paying fortunes, forfeiting their freedoms, for permission to live within fairy tales!

Similarly for all of us: rather than argue with religious people, it’s better to poke fun at them – as best seems fit. Maybe I’ll provide some illustrations in another blog, but meanwhile, some fun suggestions can be found at some of the great comics on the internet, such as at the homepages of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Russell’s Teapot, and the links provided there.


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