Fool! had that bough a pumpkin bore – or – the problem of evil, solv’d

by John Holbo on February 17, 2009

I have acquired a copy of R. Wilmott’s English Sacred Poetry of The Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1861) for the Dalziel brothers engravings. Which I am moderately pleased with. The book itself is fantastic looking. Comically heavy-bound and smoky-dark object. Zoë (age 7) got to see the thing before I did and her reaction shows she understands me well: ‘Daddy is going to love this. It even has water damage.’

And now I would like to report that the book contains the single worst argument against atheism yet devised. I present “The Atheist and the Acorn”, by Anne, the Duchess of Winchelsea. Complete with an engraving of the young PZ Myers by H.S. Marks:

putthepumpkinupthere

Methinks this world is oddly made,
And every thing’s amiss,
A dull presuming atheist said,
As stretch’d he lay beneath a shade,
And instanced it in this:

Behold, quoth he, that mighty thing,
A pumpkin, large and round,
Is held but by a little string,
Which upwards cannot make it spring,
Or bear it from the ground.

While on this oak, an acorn small,
So disproportion’d, grows;
That, who with sense surveys this all,
This universal casual ball,
Its ill contrivance knows.

My better judgment would have hung
The pumpkin on the tree,
And left the acorn, lightly strung,
‘Mongst things which on the surface sprung,
And small and feeble be.

No more the caviller could say,
Nor further faults descry;
For as he upwards gazing lay,
An acorn, loosen’d from its stay,
Fell down upon his eye.

The wounded part with tears ran o’er,
As punish’d for the sin:
Fool! had that bough a pumpkin bore,
Thy whimseys would have work’d no more,
Nor skull have kept them in.

Discuss.

I found the illustration here, and was saved from having to scan it. The poem can be found elsewhere on the web, in slightly different versions. Here, for example.

{ 81 comments }

1

Adam Roberts 02.17.09 at 4:22 pm

I’m assuming his testicles (what’s he doing with his left hand, there, in the picture?) are of diverse sizes, for which he has comically exaggerative names, and that in fiddling he has twanged one completely off such that it rebounded upon his eyeball. Hence the tears. Though he should thank God that it was the smaller of the two.

2

CK Dexter 02.17.09 at 4:46 pm

A pumpkin tree is an inherently awesome idea. Worth the risk.

3

JM 02.17.09 at 4:53 pm

The atheist seems to be a pre-Darwinian one. Can you imagine the squirrel carrying down the pumpkin from the oak tree?

4

John Holbo 02.17.09 at 4:59 pm

Duchess Anne died in 1720, so I suppose we can at least forgive her for not reading Darwin.

5

Siamang 02.17.09 at 5:04 pm

I like the church in the background.

There’s something really awesome about the atheist, enjoying sitting in the grass, perceiving nature. It’s like they know that there’s something there in nature that causes you to leave the church… even if they haven’t got it yet.

6

Delicious Pundit 02.17.09 at 5:05 pm

Well played, God.

Apologists need to take their cue from this poem and incorporate more of the Three Stooges (already Trinitarian) into their work.

7

mollymooly 02.17.09 at 5:08 pm

should it not read “had that bough a pumpkin borne” ?

8

HP 02.17.09 at 5:11 pm

No Hand or Eye did engineer
The Lord’s most favored Warden.
For surely He would think it queer
To run such foul Effluvium here
Right through a pleasure Garden.

9

John Holbo 02.17.09 at 5:24 pm

should it not read “had that bough a pumpkin borne” ?

My edition says ‘bore’. But I suspect the editor made some changes. I dunno.

10

Rich Puchalsky 02.17.09 at 5:28 pm

What is it with pumpkins? Whenever I feel like writing a vaguely satirical poem on the problem of evil — something which I do now and then — I keep finding myself featuring pumpkins. Perhaps because people carve them into jack-o-lanterns, and therefore they stand for people’s fears about evil? Seriously, has anyone done a study of pumpkin symbolism in religious thought, or something?

I’ll complete this already weird and self-centered comment with, yes, a poem:

Pumpkins

As I went walking, the world to see
Five people came to speak with me

The first was a boy who was missing a nose
He said that the good that we do only grows

The next was a man without any hands
He told how simple joys make no demands

The third was fat and grinning, though blind
And gloried the faith that in God I could find

The fourth was a woman missing her ears
Who murmured that confidence banishes fears

The last was a girl with only one leg
She smiled that the upright need never beg

The dance of the mangled blocks every path
And all I can do is laugh and laugh

11

ben wolfson 02.17.09 at 6:29 pm

Large pine cones actually can kill those on whom they fall, so, uh, there you go.

12

Righteous Bubba 02.17.09 at 6:45 pm

The atheist’s pain is sent by God
Who torments them with glee
And yet as flesh gets poked with prod
The luckless in the theist squad
Say “Where’s the gain for me?”

13

kai 02.17.09 at 6:46 pm

Not to mention coconuts.

14

Rich Puchalsky 02.17.09 at 6:47 pm

RB, wasn’t it one of the traditional benefits of Heaven that you could look down on Hell and enjoy the suffering of the damned? I was pretty sure that some major Catholic theologian said so, though I don’t remember who.

15

Righteous Bubba 02.17.09 at 6:52 pm

RB, wasn’t it one of the traditional benefits of Heaven that you could look down on Hell and enjoy the suffering of the damned?

I hope not, but it sounds plausible, doesn’t it? I’d be interested in seeing that explanation.

16

Cosma 02.17.09 at 6:57 pm

Aquinas considered the question of whether the saints in Heaven rejoice in the sufferings of the damned, and concluded that the answer is “yes”. I want to say that this answer goes back to either Irenaeus or Tertullian, but can’t remember which, and googling is unhelpful.

17

dave 02.17.09 at 6:59 pm

Tertullian. Google him and “sight of hell”…

18

dave 02.17.09 at 7:00 pm

Damn! And I really did know the answer first.

19

Matt 02.17.09 at 7:01 pm

I don’t know about Catholic Theologians, but Jonathan Edwards, the American “Great Awakening” preacher, would go on and on about how much of the joy of heaven was watching the damned suffer. Since he was a Calvinist this seems particularly twisted and unpleasant. Then again, he also went on and on about how God hated us and looked upon us like we look on the most loathsome spiders and the like. I mean, late 18th Century New England and all, but I’m not sure why people went in for that stuff.

20

Cosma 02.17.09 at 7:11 pm

Right: Tertullian, De Spectaculis, chapter 30 (the last). The argument being that Christians shouldn’t go to shows, because they are heathen and filthy, and anyway the torments of the damned will make a much better spectacle, which can already be enjoyed to some degree in the imagination.

21

Jaca 02.17.09 at 7:11 pm

I think God fucked up with the jackfruit.

22

Barry 02.17.09 at 7:15 pm

“Since he was a Calvinist this seems particularly twisted and unpleasant. “

Or, since he was a Calvinist, he *was* particularly twisted and unpleasant.

Once you’ve got predestination and salvation of the elect, you’ve got a pretty f*cked up system.

23

Anderson 02.17.09 at 7:22 pm

The Tertullian passage is quoted at length in The Genealogy of Morals, btw.

Pumpkins & poetry go back at least to Seneca’s satire on Claudius. Where divinity was also an issue. Go figure.

24

CK Dexter 02.17.09 at 7:25 pm

“What is it with pumpkins? “

Pumpkins = awesome. Orange: awesome, round: awesome, grows from ground: awesome, edible only as pie: awesome, breathes fire and frightens children: extra awesome.

“Since he was a Calvinist this seems particularly twisted and unpleasant…I mean, late 18th Century New England and all, but I’m not sure why people went in for that stuff.”

I think it’s because people are assholes. Oh, wait, I mean, “human, all to human.” I’m not sure why they stopped selling Christianity this way, surely it’s effective.

Unpleasant, yes. Twisted, no. Except perhaps _from_ a religious point of view, in which case such things can only be explained as the twist or fall from a higher, more perfect nature and calling.

25

jim 02.17.09 at 7:27 pm

Countess of Winchilsea, not Duchess. And Countess by accident: Heneage Finch was a younger son and when she married him no-one expected him to succeed to the earldom.

26

William Berry 02.17.09 at 7:30 pm

Gibbon has a footnote somewhere (in The Decline) citing St. Jerome as exulting in the torments of the damned.

27

Righteous Bubba 02.17.09 at 7:30 pm

Thanks all. In the little verse I wrote I was thinking of here-and-now luck, which of course isn’t the point at all to the, um, spiritually encumbered.

28

rea 02.17.09 at 7:39 pm

Pumpkins & poetry go back at least to Seneca’s satire on Claudius.

“Pumpkin” has to be a mistranslation–Seneca probably had in mind some kind of gourd, given that pumpkins originated the the Western Hemisphere, and were unknown to the Romans.

Fool! had that bough a pumpkin bore,
Thy whimseys would have work’d no more,
Nor skull have kept them in.

I’m somewhat skepical that a pumpkin falling out of a tree would generate enough force to smash the skull of someone sitting underneath, rather than simply smashing the pumpkin.

29

cpareader 02.17.09 at 7:40 pm

There are many on-line sources for comment on the “pumpkin papers” found in Whittaker Chambers’ garden that led to the conviction of Alger Hiss. Here’s one:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/venona/dece_hiss.html

An awesome gourd, all right.

30

Glen Tomkins 02.17.09 at 7:50 pm

Well, of course the argument from the example of this notional “caviller” is specious. The universe is certainly not ordered, nor should it be, either to his understanding, as he imagines, nor to his benefit, as the author imagines.

Both of them are wrong. I am the center of the universe. The fact that I don’t understand everything, and everything doesn’t work out to my benefit, is what prooves that there is no just God.

I trust that clears the matter up entirely and to everyone’s satisfaction.

31

oku 02.17.09 at 7:51 pm

Obviously, the guy hasn’t heard of the durian fruit:

A durian falling on a person’s head can cause serious injuries because it is heavy, armed with sharp thorns, and can fall from a significant height.Wearing a hardhat is recommended when collecting the fruit.

32

Anderson 02.17.09 at 7:51 pm

“Pumpkin” has to be a mistranslation—Seneca probably had in mind some kind of gourd, given that pumpkins originated the the Western Hemisphere, and were unknown to the Romans.

True, alas. The link shows that “Gourdification” is a better translation, but “Pumpkinification” just sounds better I guess.

33

Adam C. 02.17.09 at 7:52 pm

…How can they be in Seneca’s satire of Claudius: Pumpkins are new world vegetables.

34

JackH 02.17.09 at 7:55 pm

no mention of world wide deaths due to coconuts? i’ve heard 150! who’ll raise me?

35

Bloix 02.17.09 at 8:01 pm

Obviously she’d never seen a cocoanut.

36

Rich Puchalsky 02.17.09 at 8:10 pm

“Pumpkins = awesome. Orange: awesome, round: awesome, grows from ground: awesome, edible only as pie: awesome, breathes fire and frightens children: extra awesome.”

CK Dexter is of course right. I guess I was overemphasizing the last part of this as an explanation for why contemporary USA-ians would think pumpkins are awesome, and didn’t think it would apply earlier. Or would jack-o-lanterns have been experienced by the writer of “The Atheist and the Acorn” as well?

At any rate, here’s another one, since he or she mentioned pie. Deliberately written to be awesome-childish, of course.

Allegory From Life

On getting hungry by and by
God decided to make a pie
And into the crust of Earth he rolled
Some crunchy, munchy, tasty souls!

Now some of his pumpkins try instead
To eat God up with their wine and bread
But our experience makes that a lie
Was ever a baker eaten by pie?

Open your heart to what is true
You live for God to devour you

37

JM 02.17.09 at 8:18 pm

It’s an 18th century atheism based on a kind of neoclassical “decorum,” then. Big trees should have big fruits. A wholly aesthetic kind of atheism.

38

Bloix 02.17.09 at 8:35 pm

And what’s wrong with that, JM? The atheist is arguing that a God who created an aesthetic sensibility in men would himself necessarily have an asthetic sensibility. We see, however, that the world is mal-proportioned in a way that no asthetic sensibility would permit. Ergo, God must not exist. Not a bad argument as these things go.

And the response is that an ethical constraint has prevented God from creating the well-proportioned world that the atheist imagines. It would have been unethical for God to put pumpkins in trees because it would have subjected humans to unnecessary suffering. Therefore in this case the age-old conflict between ethics and aesthetics is decided in favor of ethics, and the lack of proportion in the world becomes evidence of the existence of God, not proof of His non-existence.

39

Gareth Rees 02.17.09 at 9:16 pm

an ethical constraint has prevented God from creating the well-proportioned world that the atheist imagines. It would have been unethical for God to put pumpkins in trees because it would have subjected humans to unnecessary suffering.

The existence of durians refutes this claim.

40

Anderson 02.17.09 at 9:30 pm

Obviously she’d never seen a cocoanut.

Now there’s a poignant scene: 18th-century explorer lands on isle, sees palm trees, observes coconut falling … sinks to his knees, covers his face, and wails, “THERE IS NO GOD!!!”

Right before the natives capture and eat him.

41

Eddie Janssen 02.17.09 at 9:37 pm

I am an atheist. I have a question. Why did Allah create God and Buddha?

42

Weaves 02.17.09 at 11:05 pm

I read it more as an argument against God

“Methinks this world is oddly made,
And every thing’s amiss,”

Line of least resistance

“My better judgment would have hung
The pumpkin on the tree,
And left the acorn, lightly strung,
‘Mongst things which on the surface sprung,
And small and feeble be.”

If such a God existed, no doubt his judgment would have been the same, as man was “made in his own image”. Assumedly, thought patterns would be similar.

Alas, nature does not like to be logical

43

Bloix 02.17.09 at 11:14 pm

Durians and cocoanuts do not grow on English trees.
Yet more proof, if proof need be, that God’s love shines on Winchelsea.

44

GalapagosPete 02.17.09 at 11:37 pm

Bet it wouldn’t do your neck a bit of good, though!

45

Z 02.18.09 at 12:24 am

What, no-one will point out that this poem is but a translation of La Fontaine? Here goes
Dieu fait bien ce qu’il fait. Sans en chercher la preuve
En tout cet Univers, et l’aller parcourant,
Dans les Citrouilles je la treuve.
Un villageois, considérant
Combien ce fruit est gros, et sa tige menue
A quoi songeait, dit-il, l’Auteur de tout cela ?
Il a bien mal placé cette Citrouille-là :
Hé parbleu, je l’aurais pendue
A l’un des chênes que voilà.
C’eût été justement (1) l’affaire ;
Tel fruit, tel arbre, pour bien faire.
C’est dommage, Garo, que tu n’es point entré
Au conseil de celui que prêche ton Curé ;
Tout en eût été mieux ; car pourquoi par exemple
Le Gland, qui n’est pas gros comme mon petit doigt,
Ne pend-il pas en cet endroit ?
Dieu s’est mépris ; plus je contemple
Ces fruits ainsi placés, plus il semble à Garo
Que l’on a fait un quiproquo.
Cette réflexion embarrassant notre homme :
On ne dort point, dit-il, quand on a tant d’esprit.
Sous un chêne aussitôt il va prendre son somme.
Un gland tombe ; le nez du dormeur en pâtit.
II s’éveille ; et portant la main sur son visage,
Il trouve encor le Gland pris au poil du menton.
Son nez meurtri le force à changer de langage ;
Oh, oh, dit-il, je saigne ! et que serait-ce donc
S’il fût tombé de l’arbre une masse plus lourde,
Et que ce gland eût été gourde ?
Dieu ne l’a pas voulu : sans doute il et raison ;
J’en vois bien à présent la cause.
En louant Dieu de toute chose,
Garo retourne à la maison.

46

phosphorious 02.18.09 at 12:36 am

On the one hand, Tertullian seems a bit sadistic.

On the other, it wouldn’t be heaven if you couldn’t look down and see Geroge Bush and Dick Cheney being waterboarded forever and ever.

47

Righteous Bubba 02.18.09 at 12:40 am

It’d be heaven if you didn’t remember who they were.

48

southpaw 02.18.09 at 1:04 am

Speaking from my years of experience as a goalkeeper, I think I’ll state my preference for a pumpkin strike to the skull rather than a direct acorn strike to the eye. Acorns are fucking pointy, man.

49

Bloix 02.18.09 at 1:24 am

I see I accidentally wrote an almost couplet. Let me fix it:

The cocoanut, the durian, they hang not from an English tree.
Yet more proof, if proof need be, that God’s love shines on Winchelsea.

50

Bloix 02.18.09 at 1:28 am

And for those whose French is a little rusty, we have La Fontaine in the Babel Fish translation:

God does well what it does. Without seeking the proof of it In all this Universe, and the traversing be, In Pumpkins I it treuve. A villager, considering How much this fruit is large, and its small stem With what thought, he, the Author of all that says? He well badly placed this Pumpkin: He parbleu, I would have hung it With the one of the oaks that here. It had been precisely (1) the business; Such fruit, such tree, for making well. It is damage, Garo, which you did not enter With the council of that which sermon your Priest; All had been better; because why for example The Nipple, which is not large like my little finger, Doesn’t it hang in this place? God mistook; more I contemplate These fruits thus placed, more it seems in Garo That one made a misunderstanding. This reflexion embarrassing our man: One does not sleep, says it, when one has such an amount of spirit. Under a oak at once it will take its nap. A nipple falls; the nose of the sleeper suffers from it. II wakes up; and carrying the hand on its face, It finds encor the Nipple taken with the hair of the chin. Its ravaged nose forces it to change language; Oh, oh, say it, I bleed! and what would be this thus If it had fallen from the tree a heavier mass, And what this nipple had been gourd? God did not want it: undoubtedly it and reason; I see of it well now the cause. By renting God of any thing, Garo turns over to the house.

51

John Holbo 02.18.09 at 1:36 am

“A nipple falls; the nose of the sleeper suffers from it.”

That’s a great translation.

52

jholbo 02.18.09 at 1:51 am

It is interesting that the poem is basically a borrowing from the French, apparently.

53

Z 02.18.09 at 2:19 am

Pardon my french, if I may say so.

What God does, he does it well. Without seeking the proof
Wandering in the whole Universe,
In pumpkins I found it
A villager, considering
How big this fruit is, and how frail its stem
What was the Author of it all thinking?
This pupkin, he did misplace
By God, I would have hung it
To one of these oaks there.
That would have been precise business.
As fruit goes, as tree, and all is well.
It’s a shame, Garo, that you did not advise
The one whom your priest preaches
All would have been better; for why for instance
Acorns, which are smaller than my little finger
Do not hang from this place?
God was confused; the more I gaze
At these ill-suited fruits, the more Garo
Concludes that there has been a quid pro quo
This thought embarrassed our man
One cannot sleep, says he, with so much wit
Under an oak , immediately, he goes to sleep
An acorn falls; the nose of the sleeper bleeds
Awake; feeling his face with his hand
He finds the acorn, hanging in his beard
His bruised nose prompts a change in tone
Oh, says he, I bleed and what would it be
If from this tree a greater mass had fallen
And if that acorn had been a pumpkin
God did not wish it so: undoubtedly he’s right;
I can now see well enough the cause
And praising God in all things
Garo returns to his home.

I regret the wonderful “By renting God of any thing”.

54

kid bitzer 02.18.09 at 3:05 am

damn, z–thanks for recognizing the source and reporting it.

i think we can definitely have the duchess of winchelsea up on an honor code violation.

55

Gene O'Grady 02.18.09 at 5:30 am

Why should one suppose that Anne Finch (or LaFontaine) is arguing (and who is she arguing with)? The poem is slight, humorous, a bit catty, but more simply setting her own (probably too comfortable) faith, with a little gratitude for it. I doubt from her life history that she was much given to arguing, but if she were going to argue against atheism (it’s usually the atheists arguing against the theists as far as I can tell) she would have done better than that.

The reason that the satire on Claudius usually refers to the gourd (whatever that happens to have been in Pliny and Seneca) is that the sound of the word is rather ridiculous in Latin, and pumpkin sounds a lot more silly than gourd in English (plus it has a repeated consonant like colocynthum). The other reason being that various fruits or vegetables have lots of symbolic value, of everything from life to oral sex, mostly having to do with moisture and seeds, and gourds, at least in the Western United States are typically dry.

I keep meaning to get through my bilingual Tertullian to his wife in my decent Latin and bad French, but until I do I just remember that growing up as kids we were taught that unlike the other Church Fathers (but like Origen, a greater and better man but arguablypretty unbalanced) Tertullian hadn’t been canonized owing to his psyche having led him in perverse and unhuman directions — considering that Jerome was canonized, that must have made him pretty extreme.

56

Praisegod Barebones 02.18.09 at 11:38 am

‘Speaking from my years of experience as a goalkeeper, I think I’ll state my preference for a pumpkin strike to the skull rather than a direct acorn strike to the eye.’

I’m trying to figure out in which sport goalkeeping involves having either pumpkins or acorns thrown at your face…

57

jim 02.18.09 at 1:28 pm

@54

Finch (by the way, the convention is to refer to her as “Finch”, not as “Countess of Winchilsea”, or “Anne”, certainly not “Duchess of Winchelsea” which gets neither her rank nor the place right) wrote a number of translations of LaFontaine: this one, “The Battle between the Rats and the Weazels”, “The Eagle, Sow and Cat”, “The House of Socrates” (which should appeal to John) and so on, about three dozen, all told, plus another dozen fables from other sources.

Translation is ordinarily not considered an honor-code violation.

58

Michael Drake 02.18.09 at 2:40 pm

“I doubt from her life history that she was much given to arguing”

‘Twould appear thus.

59

Bloix 02.18.09 at 3:13 pm

But the Finch (if that’s what the profs say, it’s good enough for me, although during her life she would never, ever have been called that) is not merely a translation – it’s a much harsher piece.

The La Fontaine “villager” is a country bumpkin who never doubts the existence of God, merely His good sense. After he muses on God’s apparent error, he falls asleep and is hit, by accident, and wakes reassured of God’s surpassing wisdom, whereupon he returns home. We the readers are assured that the country-folk’s naive belief is secure, and we chuckle indulgently at the foolish but good-hearted villager.

The Finch “atheist” is a young man of status and education, who denies God outright. Immediately, God intervenes to punish him. He is given no opportunity to repent, and instead the poet herself berates him with a sadistic fantasy of his brains beaten out of his skull.

It’s a completely different poem in tone and purpose. Not a translation at all.

60

kid bitzer 02.18.09 at 3:13 pm

well, jim, i was only copying her title from the original post. last time i’ll trust holbo to tell a duchess from a countess, or to spell place-names.

as far as plagiarism goes, i believe that most institutions would count it as a violation of their honor code if a student or faculty member were to present a translation as their own work. of course, we have no reason to think she did present it as her own work. but then again, in case you hadn’t noticed it, my accusation was meant as a joke.

that said, it really is nice–and i say this in all sincerity–to have informed people weigh in with information. i was delighted to learn from z that the source is lafontaine; i’m delighted to learn from you that it is now customary to refer to the translator as ‘finch’.

61

belle le triste 02.18.09 at 3:48 pm

was there a great deal of atheism* around pre-1720 to be in any kind of dispute (teasing or serious) with? wikipedia led me to one Jean Meslier, whose dates pretty much match ann of finchelsea’s, but whose big book on it was only discovered after he died — in 1729

*obviously there was a vast amount of argument in the 17th century — and civil and military strife — about which arm of christianity was the correct one, including plenty of extremely inventive indie and avant garde xtian sects, actual non-theism was really quite rare, wasn’t it?

62

jholbo 02.18.09 at 3:57 pm

Excuse me. My bad. My book has her as ‘Ann, Countess of Winchelsea’.

63

Jim Roberts 02.18.09 at 4:37 pm

belle le triste: “was there a great deal of atheism* around pre-1720″

Apparently there was some. John Bunyan’s book The Life and Death of Mr Badman contains a story about an atheist who wrote a book against God and the soul (“though I think it was not published”), but who gets his comeuppance when he suffers a stroke, loses the power of speech and is partly paralysed. The Godly rejoice greatly to see him helplessly sit and drool. They were presumably also pleasurably anticipating their view of the torments of the damned in Hell.

64

Bloix 02.18.09 at 5:45 pm

“finchelsea”? Are you being intentionally provocative? I’m waiting trepidatiously for jim’s reaction.

65

Rich Puchalsky 02.18.09 at 6:48 pm

I think that this has been re-done as popular music, too, come to think of it. There was a song on the album “Talking Acorns ’77” — whose themes were later repeated in “More Songs About Buildings and Pumpkins” — called “Don’t Worry About God” or something like that. As best as I can recall the lyrics:

I see the clouds that move across the sky
I see the deity that moves the clouds away
It moves the clouds over by the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

I smell the oak trees and the punpkins in the woods
I see the pinecones that fall by the highway
Sometimes they fall and kill people
I pick the building that I want to live in

It’s over there, it’s over there
My building has every convenience
It has sitting atheists convenient to me
I can watch as they look to the sky
I can relax as they get hit in the eye

But I don’t remember the rest, sorry.

66

Julian Elson 02.19.09 at 7:12 am

I’d guess that atheism circa 1720s was somewhat like racism circa the early 2000s: i.e., politically incorrect, not said in polite society, and in some places even having legal implications, but reasonably common (although a minority view) as a secret opinion.

67

mor 02.19.09 at 9:45 am

Was it Johnson who said that the 18th.C. was an age of unbelief? In Sacred Poetry Gray’s Elegy is profusely illustrated. Arnold asks why Gray’s production was so scanty and the answer he proffers is that Gray was born into an age of prose. Lady Anne’s poem is a poor argument but it is poor poetry because it is an argument. It aspires more to wit and ‘splendid diction’ than to enthusiasm.

Is there any atheist poetry that celebrates unbelief or argues for it? Arnold was wistful and regretted it in ‘Dover Beach’.

‘On First Looking into Darwin’s Origin’ by R.Dawkins. Strutting like a rook, declaiming, with his glittering eye.

68

dave 02.19.09 at 12:16 pm

rm post from banned commenter Lex/Dave

69

ajay 02.19.09 at 3:01 pm

Since the ‘God’ that the everyday priesthood preached about was so evidently a bogeyman/consolation-prize for the downtrodden and unfortunate, ignoring him when you were rich, famous, talented and convinced of your own inherent superiority made a lot of sense.

“The myriad gods of the empire were all regarded by the common man as equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, and by the philosopher as equally useful” – Gibbon.

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ajay 02.19.09 at 3:01 pm

Damn. “By the magistrate as equally useful.”

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Preachy Preach 02.19.09 at 3:53 pm

Chapter XV (+- 1) in Decline & Fall is a superb example of the most bald-faced irony – without ever directly making a mocking statement, but just by taking everything at face value, he manages to make Christian theology look utterly ridiculous.

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belle le triste 02.19.09 at 4:06 pm

the book i’m reading about the civil war — michael braddick’s “god’s fury, england’s fire” — just noted that the activism for freedom of conscience round the time of the putney meetings (1647-48) specifically excluded atheism and popery, which were both considered still entirely punishable by radical AND respectable opinion: this — and dave’s post — have answered my question

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Tom S. Fox 02.20.09 at 12:27 am

Did you know that 150 people are killed by falling coconuts each year?

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salient 02.20.09 at 1:15 am

I’m trying to figure out in which sport goalkeeping involves having either pumpkins or acorns thrown at your face…

Field hockey?

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walker 02.20.09 at 6:00 am

Just kibitzing in on the conversation here; Bloix is running riot here. Where’s the strident atheistic poet to challenge him? Has theism finally found its preordained avenger?

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Fitcher's Bird 02.20.09 at 10:39 am

I’m fairly certain that this tale comes from a old Nasreddin Hodja story, which wasn’t half as vindictive and fell in the general tradition of ‘oh, that silly Nasreddin Hodja’ . In the version I read as a child (paraphrased from memory), the fruits were a watermelon and a date. Hodja (Muslim, not atheist) spotted them growing near each other and wondered why God gave a large fruit like a watermelon such a small stalk instead growing it on a tree. A date falls on his head, not injuring him, and Hodja goes “Oh, that’d be why.”

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Agenbite of Belmont 02.22.09 at 8:05 am

It is at times, watching this erudite smug scoffing at the delusional believer and his delusional beliefs, as though the mighty, in indignation and righteousness of cause while yet still-beleaguered and minority in number, forces of the Abolitionist campaign were to be seen attacking the peculiar institution of slavery, with the full measure of their wit and knowledge, by ridiculing the slaves themselves, and ripping to small shreds their dull reasons and feeble justifications for continuing so to arduously work without recompense, for masters whose only hold on them is violent coercion and fear.
Slaves whose only real justification can ever be that immoral force, and the inescapable fact of their captivity.
It is much safer to vent spleen on the unarmed and hapless, and their confused and conflicted, and equally enchained leaders, than to track those chains back to the forge, and to the initial order for their manufacture. And then to track forward the lines of profit that extend from that rewardless labor to…well, yes, to where?
Some will cavil that hordes of addled believers yet rampage freely, even that they increase daily though recently not quite so much, and hesitate not at all to attack any unbeliever who makes his claim in public, so that professions of atheism are in fact dangerous and not safe at all, even now, deep as we are in centuries of Reason’s Age.
This is while true in great part a misdirection, as with the dogs at guard in the grounds of an estate. An estate besieged by angry villagers whose catalog of misuse and injustice has caught fire and driven them hence for retribution.
Yes there are dogs, yes they will tear your pants and worse if they can get at you, and yes they are a grievous nuisance to legitimate petitioners, but they are there as are the slaves out in the field and in the back parts of the house, to serve their master, and ensure his wealth and comfort.
Some will cavil in turn at that, and say, with disdain, that it is a great frustration of this conflict, that the believers’ faith in a non-extant master makes them an opponent like the Hydra, or like a cloud of biting insects, or some other biological metaphor that has no accountable, defeatable head.
And, say those cavillers, cavalierly, why not slap and thwack and ridicule and mock, it has its cathartic benefit, it confirms us in our affinity, and may in time even succeed in diminishing the power of superstition, and the superstitious, in society. Why not?
Why not laugh at the slave in his chains?
Because it is a weak thing to do, and inferiorly motivated.
And because it leaves undone the task presented the working conscience when one asks “Cui bono?”.
That and the glaring fact that no one here in this troubled world has the slightest idea where we are or what we’re doing, beyond the basest and most simplistic subjective explanations.
We don’t understand time for all that we can measure it with astonishing accuracy. We don’t understand gravity except by what it does. We have a working definition of light, but only that, and our knowledge of the infinite universe both exterior and interior is like an infant’s knowledge of its crib and its digestive processes, growing rapidly, but as yet very immediate.
The more we do learn, the more the rationalist’s objective universe looks like a comforting, pragmatic myth.
In light of that ignorance this mockery of believers and their beliefs appears more like the superior airs and posturings taken on by a privileged house slave toward his less fortunate brothers and sisters in the field, and not at all the compassionate regard of the free and honorable man confronting, with humility and an open heart, the brutal fact of lives lived in chains.

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roy belmont 02.22.09 at 7:01 pm

Attest.

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roy belmont 02.22.09 at 7:02 pm

It is at times, watching this erudite smug scoffing at the delusional believer and his delusional beliefs, as though the mighty, in indignation and righteousness of cause while yet still-beleaguered and minority in number, forces of the Abolitionist campaign were to be seen attacking the peculiar institution of slavery, with the full measure of their wit and knowledge, by ridiculing the slaves themselves, and ripping to small shreds their dull reasons and feeble justifications for continuing so to arduously work without recompense, for masters whose only hold on them is violent coercion and fear.
Slaves whose only real justification can ever be that immoral force, and the inescapable fact of their captivity.
It is much safer to vent spleen on the unarmed and hapless, and their confused and conflicted, and equally enchained leaders, than to track those chains back to the forge, and to the initial order for their manufacture. And then to track forward the lines of profit that extend from that rewardless labor to…well, yes, to where?
Some will cavil that hordes of addled believers yet rampage freely, even that they increase daily though recently not quite so much, and hesitate not at all to attack any unbeliever who makes his claim in public, so that professions of atheism are in fact dangerous and not safe at all, even now, deep as we are in centuries of Reason’s Age.
This is while true in great part a misdirection, as with the dogs at guard in the grounds of an estate. An estate besieged by angry villagers whose catalog of misuse and injustice has caught fire and driven them hence for retribution.
Yes there are dogs, yes they will tear your pants and worse if they can get at you, and yes they are a grievous nuisance to legitimate petitioners, but they are there as are the slaves out in the field and in the back parts of the house, to serve their master, and ensure his wealth and comfort.
Some will cavil in turn at that, and say, with disdain, that it is a great frustration of this conflict, that the believers’ faith in a non-extant master makes them an opponent like the Hydra, or like a cloud of biting insects, or some other biological metaphor that has no accountable, defeatable head.
And, say those cavillers, cavalierly, why not slap and thwack and ridicule and mock, it has its cathartic benefit, it confirms us in our affinity, and may in time even succeed in diminishing the power of superstition, and the superstitious, in society. Why not?
Why not laugh at the slave in his chains?
Because it is a weak thing to do, and inferiorly motivated.
And because it leaves undone the task presented the working conscience when one asks “Cui bono?”.
That and the glaring fact that no one here in this troubled world has the slightest idea where we are or what we’re doing, beyond the basest and most simplistic subjective explanations.
We don’t understand time for all that we can measure it with astonishing accuracy. We don’t understand gravity except by what it does. We have a working definition of light, but only that, and our knowledge of the infinite universe both exterior and interior is like an infant’s knowledge of its crib and its digestive processes, growing rapidly but as yet very immediate.
The more we do learn, the more the rationalist’s objective universe looks like a comforting, pragmatic myth.
In light of that ignorance this mockery of believers and their beliefs appears more like the superior airs and posturings taken on by the privileged house slave toward his less fortunate brothers and sisters in the field, and not at all the compassionate regard of the free and honorable man, confronting, with humility and an open heart, the brutal fact of lives lived in chains.

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dave 02.22.09 at 7:12 pm

rm post from banned commenter Lex/Dave

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roy belmont 02.22.09 at 8:18 pm

Brilliant rebuttal, Dave. I wanted to get pumpkins and Higgs bosons in there, but I ran out of 19th century steam. Maybe that would have helped you flesh things out a little. Next time, okay?

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