Monday, September 15, 2008

Bullshit Dressed Up

This is supposed to be a post about The Flight of Peter Fromm, the latest selection of Nonbelieving Literati. And I will eventually get to a very short discussion of the book. But first, I need to tell readers a few facts about myself.

I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember. When I was four or five years old, it dawned on me that the concept of a god was ridiculous. It didn’t make any sense. I had no need of any deep philosophical or scientific arguments to help me arrive at that position, though; I wouldn’t have been capable of following them if I had. I just felt – “knew,” really – that the idea was silly.

As I grew to adulthood, I learned something about science, something about history, something about sociology, something about comparative mythology. I studied philosophy, even though, as I’ve said dozens of times, I think it’s mostly mental masturbation. I read the bible as a historico-mythical tract, from cover to cover a few times. I can now argue against the existence of god about as well as anyone can.

But, within myself, I don’t need to do that. The skepticism that first bloomed back when I was a sprout is still my primary reason for dismissing supernatural claims. They don’t make any sense.

So it should come as no surprise that I see the “study” of theology as a lot of pseudo-intellectual babble. Yes, it’s occasionally fun to read so-called “literary” exegeses of the bible, but the truth is: I don’t accept most of the bible as having any merit as great writing. Did you ever struggle through Leviticus or Deuteronomy? Or either book of Chronicles, f’Chrissake? From a literary standpoint, quite a few of the epistles are sheer crap. The writing in the Gospel of Mark is comparable to that of a simple-minded sixth-grader. And who can wade through the minor prophets without admitting to himself: This is junk compared to the works of Homer or the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Eddas or the Mahabharata.

But the study of theology is not about literary merit. It’s about ... what the hell is it about? Ostensibly it’s the study of god’s ways, of the relationship between humans and their deity. It’s loaded with nonsense masquerading as logic, twaddle pretending to be deep thinking, baloney passing as critical analysis. Theology is the justification of claptrap in the guise of rational discourse. It's bullshit dressed up. The child in me flips through a few pages of “theological” philosophy and whispers: This doesn’t make any sense.

And that brings me to The Flight of Peter Fromm. The author is Martin Gardner, whose writings I’ve been devouring since I was a teenager. Throughout my life, I’ve joyfully read dozens of Gardner’s volumes on mathematical recreations, science vs. superstition, even his entertaining annotations of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books.

But this Peter Fromm novel has no “soul.” Yeah, there are characters, or at least two-dimensional figures with characters’ names. But the book is mostly what, if it weren’t about theology, I’d call a novel of ideas. (How about: a novel of stupid ideas?) The title character seems to study every branch and sub-branch of 20th century theology he can, and Gardner describes them with varying degrees of insight and success.

After about 100 pages, I’d had enough. I just didn’t care at all about why Peter Fromm had had a fit while preaching an Easter sermon in 1948. Why bother wading through pages and pages of theological hogwash? Not having finished the book, I still don’t know why he had his breakdown; nor am I curious. Maybe the guy got pissed off at himself for having wasted so much time studying a non-subject. Whatever. I saw no reason why I should join him.

[Note: The next book we will be discussing, beginning on November 1, is Remembering Hypatia. See my sidebar for a link to the appropriate Amazon page.]

14 comments:

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: A novel of ideas, stupid ideas.

lol, so true.

The novel reminded me constantly of the "courtier's response" (that it's foolish to reject God if you haven't studied the serious theologians). Seeing their ideas laid out by an intelligent author who is sympathetic so them, it becomes glaringly clear that their "ideas" really are just a bunch of claptrap.

Still, I liked to book for presenting a perspective that was unfamiliar to me, and I think I gained some insight from it.

John Evo said...

I think, having read it all the way through, that it might be something I'd recommend to a friend who was still actually struggling with these issues. For those of us who actually blog about issues of import to atheists... we're pretty far beyond any important insights. Maybe a few minor ones.

yunshui said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who gave up before the end. I was beginning to feel guilty...

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who gave up before the end. I was beginning to feel guilty...

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Sorry about that. I was in the zone, on auto-pilot, and it just came out that way. ;)

Actually, I didn't even read the book. I ordered it from some schmuck on half-com, but it never showed up. Now I have to file a claim through the site to get my money back.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Theology is the study of something that doesn't exist. But I found it fascinating to read all those ways to try and reconcile the impossible with reality - even including saying "well, it really doesn't matter, does it?"

The Exterminator said...

C.L.:
Still, I liked to book for presenting a perspective that was unfamiliar to me, and I think I gained some insight from it.
Well, I agree that one can gain insight from listening to someone with an unfamiliar perspective. I guess I just think that not all insights are worth gaining.

Evo:
I don't disagree. But is the book really a novel, or just a history of 20th century theological "thought," with a skimpy story on which to hook the nonsense.

yunshui:
I didn't feel any guilt at all. Nonbelieving Literati is a freethinkers' book club. Obviously, a member doesn't have to like the latest chosen book -- or even finish reading it. The only thing he or she "needs" to do is post some thoughts about the selection. You fulfilled your literary responsibility very nicely by publishing a well-written short essay.

SI:
Now I have to file a claim through the site to get my money back.
You of all people should not have to be told: Sue the bastards.

Ridger:
Theology is the study of something that doesn't exist.
I like that a lot. It's so much more genteel than "Theology is bullshit dressed up."

the chaplain said...

It won't surprise any of you that, as I read the book, I saw quite a bit of myself in Peter. I didn't mind reviewing the theological stuff either, since it reinforced for me that I did the right thing in dispensing with all the bullshit. Their bullshit wasn't any better than mine was when I was a believer, and it still isn't any better than mine was (which was pretty bad).

John Evo said...

@ SI - glad I never took your advice on half-off dot com!

Ordinary Girl said...

I also saw a bit of myself in Peter, in the first 2-3 chapters, and then I got lost. Maybe it's because I didn't go through most of the theological arguments.

Ex, I knew you wouldn't be able to finish the book. Somehow, though, I kept imagining you there as Homer in my mind. With a lot more cussing and f’Chrissakes. And Mrs. Ex was there too with a lot of cocktails and wine.

The Exterminator said...

chappy:
Have you ever thought of giving a course in Comparative Bullshit?

Evo:
I must have misheard, because I thought SI was urging us to try half-wit dot com.

OG:
Sounds like you've gotten The Flight of Peter Fromm mixed up with the end of The Wizard of Oz: "And you were in it, and you were in it, and you were in it, too."

FYI: If you ever have that dream, I wanna be one of the flying monkeys.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I must have misheard, because I thought SI was urging us to try half-wit dot com.

Best online religious book store around.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

FYI: If you ever have that dream, I wanna be one of the flying monkeys.

The position's already been taken.

John Evo said...

Ex as HOMER? Please, OG... Homer was a nice guy! He didn't ever come out and tell Peter his beliefs were shit. He let him work through it by asking him questions and making ambiguous comments. Not at all like OUR Ex!