H. P. Lovecraft – Precocious Provincial

by John Holbo on September 9, 2017

A second Lovecraft post, since the first is getting some love. He doesn’t love the Irish. (They seem to be the half of the Hiberno-Prussian herd he likes least.) From “Americanism“:

The greatest foe to rational Americanism is that dislike for our parent nation which holds sway amongst the ignorant and bigoted, and which is kept alive largely by certain elements of the population who seem to consider the sentiments of Southern and Western Ireland more important than those of the United States. In spite of the plain fact that a separate Ireland would weaken civilisation and menace the world’s peace by introducing a hostile and undependable wedge betwixt the two major parts of Saxondom, these irresponsible elements continue to encourage rebellion in the Green Isle; and in so doing tend to place this nation in a distressingly anomalous position as an abettor of crime and sedition against the Mother Land. Disgusting beyond words are the public honours paid to political criminals like Edward, alias Eamonn, de Valera, whose very presence at large among us is an affront to our dignity and heritage. Never may we appreciate or even fully comprehend our own place and mission in the world, till we can banish those clouds of misunderstanding which float between us and the source of our culture.

But the features of Americanism peculiar to this continent must not be belittled. In the abolition of fixed and rigid class lines a distinct sociological advance is made, permitting a steady and progressive recruiting of the upper levels from the fresh and vigorous body of the people beneath. Thus opportunities of the choicest sort await every citizen alike, whilst the biological quality of the cultivated classes is improved by the cessation of that narrow inbreeding which characterises European aristocracy.

Total separation of civil and religious affairs, the greatest political and intellectual advance since the Renaissance, is also a local American—and more particularly a Rhode Island—triumph …


There’s a special comedy to a whole volume of Lovecraft’s essays on politics and philosophy (among other things). It’s not that it’s all-fired eldritch, although the prose tends to purple. Rather, he writes with effortless overconfidence – just like regular people! “Endless is the credulity of the human mind.” And so forth. There is a lot of taking the long, wide view. “When the historian of the future shall look back upon the stupendous events …” Our author is much given to cosmic meditation. “Human thought, with its infinite varieties, intensities, aspects, and collisions, is perhaps the most amusing yet discouraging spectacle on our terraqueous globe.” But this penchant for long, wide views has no apparent tendency to carry him outside himself – outside his small sphere. Providence, Rhode Island. He has a bug in his ear about the Irish; he is a vigorous prohibitionist. (I hadn’t known that. There is an obvious connection there, of course: he’s anti-Catholic.) His issue set is a fun-house mirror – everything in comic disproportion. The fact that he wraps himself in the proportions of the cosmos merely dramatizes the of-its-time-and-place idiosyncracy of his outlook.

There isn’t explicit anti-black animus (so far as I’ve read.) I don’t think that racial issue much preoccupied him. (I don’t doubt his ideas were toxic. UPDATE: Obviously I know about his notoriously racist poem.) Nope, all this ‘Ireland is like a dagger, cutting apart the US and England!’ was more important, and is so past-its-sell-by date it’s hard to be seriously offended on anybody’s behalf. And the prohibition stuff. “Slightly less superficial observers hit upon the abstract principle of ‘Liberty’ as the keynote of Americanism, interpreting this justly esteemed principle as anything from Bolshevism to the right to drink 2.75 per cent. beer.” The thing is: Lovecraft thinks 2.75 per cent. beer is bad as Bolshevism. And Bolshevism is bad.

It’s not all ridiculous. Some of what he writes is witty and rather gently endearing. There is a self-effacing quality to his brief autobiography. Precocious but provincial.


Born of old Yankee-English stock August 20, 1890, in Providence, R.I. Always lived there except for very brief periods. Educated in local schools and privately, ill health precluding university.

Interested early in colour and mystery of things. At the age of 8 1/2 in March 1899 I began to print in pencil a weekly paper called The Scientific Gazette, in editions of one copy for family circulation. In August 1903 I founded the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy, a weekly; after January 1, 1905, a monthly, which lasted till 1908. It was printed in editions of 15 to 25 on the hectograph.


Occupation—literary hack work, including revision and special editorial jobs. Have contributed macabre fiction to Weird Tales regularly since 1923. Conservative in general perspective and method so far as compatible with phantasy in art and mechanistic materialism in philosophy.

{ 31 comments }

1

Richard Ebooks 09.09.17 at 8:58 am

Lovecraft was concerned enough with the anti-black aspect of his myriad faceted bigotry to pen “On the Creation of N****rs”; a poem that is unsurprisingly rarely in print. This didn’t stop my foolish adolescent curiosity from doing a google search for it, and finding it on a white supremacist forum. Fortunately this did let me also see a host of white supremacists of various non-Anglo ethnicities complaining that Lovecraft was too racist

2

John Holbo 09.09.17 at 9:46 am

Oh I know about that, Richard. I think every Lovecraft fan has heard about that sordid mess. Sorry for any confusion. That’s the reason why one might expect his essays to be full of more of the same. But they are not. I’m not trying to excuse him, just saying that if you read the essays expecting a lot more of that you won’t get it. Not as far as I’ve read.

3

bob mcmanus 09.09.17 at 11:50 am

Since you’re reading for us, do you see much anti-semitism. either overt or disguised in populism and rants against banking or urbanism? Or eugenics? And I do think HPL gets a little excess attention while Edith Wharton’s (etc) eugenicism is underexamined. (RIP S Kaufman)

I do have a recent book on my TBR all post-structuralisty by a name I recognized from the Webs, but can’t find or remember title/author.

Having just finished a little reading on Aime Cesaire (i skip diacriticals cause commonism) and so might put HPL in the surrealist line from Lautremont to Aragon and try to connect excessive or disconnected figuration to some political unconscious of alienation and reaction to modernity.

Came up with one of my own last week: Reading about Republicans is like watching the censored outtakes of an Isidor Ducasse wetdream. Needs some work.

4

Henry Farrell 09.09.17 at 12:10 pm

One of the weird things about the 1920s that I’d like to research and write about if I ever had time, is the weird place that Eamonn De Valera had in the imagination of the English speaking world. Lots of fulminations against him in the later editions of Angell’s The Great Illusion, as well as in issues of the Dial that I was going through in search of pieces by Dewey and his critics. It’s hard for Irish people (let alone non-Irish people who have never heard of him) to imagine him as a world bestriding villain, but apparently such he was for many people back then.

5

Nils Gilman 09.09.17 at 12:40 pm

I haven’t done the research on postwar opinions concerning de Valera, but at a reasonable first hypothesis, I would guess that the animus derives from seeing him as a symbol of unbudging and potentially violent anti-colonial political agitation, and of the threat of subaltern disloyalty generally. Thus for anyone who believed in the imperialist or merely white supremacist agenda, de Valera was a bogey.

6

steven t johnson 09.09.17 at 12:55 pm

Don’t know how provincial denying the supernatural is today, much less in the early twentieth century.

Do think atheism is entirely compatible with the old religious bigotry and Lovecraft shows this (if Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne didn’t already.) All religions are wrong, but some are more equally wrong than others.

Don’t know if the blend between straightforward religious and racial bigotry is due to the tendency to use pseudoscientific “explanations” to seem less provincial, or due to so many people not being real clear on the distinction.

Do think I’ve been spared any need to read Lovecraft’s essays. Thanks.

7

John Holbo 09.09.17 at 1:02 pm

I would say Lovecraft’s materialism and atheism is pretty not-provincial. The odd thing is how little dwelling on deep time and space seems to take you out of your own little home town. I suppose Lovecraft is like other philosophers in that regard, for the most part.

“One of the weird things about the 1920s that I’d like to research and write about if I ever had time, is the weird place that Eamonn De Valera had in the imagination of the English speaking world.”

Well, glad to add Lovecraft to your clippings box if you get to it, Henry.

8

Ebenezer Scrooge 09.09.17 at 4:49 pm

Bob@3: I can’t remember much antisemitism in Lovecraft’s fiction: even of the cryptic variety. Personally, he was an antisemite–who married a Jewish woman. But then again, Donald Trump’s daughter . . .

9

Tyrone Slothrop 09.09.17 at 4:56 pm

I would say Lovecraft’s materialism and atheism is pretty not-provincial…I suppose Lovecraft is like other philosophers in that regard, for the most part.

I didn’t read the post, but, respectfully, this strikes me as a particularly American and (white (and Pop-Tart-ingesting)) male postulation, JH. Perhaps you might want to consider how others not so situated (in deep time and space-considering assumptions) would not take kindly to being shoe-horned (ad hominemed, if we’re to be honest) into such a chthonic position. Frankly, I’m not inclined to take anymore of your bullying, JH, however wrongful you might deem this line of (justified, imo) defense (and, perhaps, you may want to consider that in and of itself to discover how much you might be the crux of the problem..

10

Stephen 09.09.17 at 5:26 pm

Lovecraft’s talents as a writer of fiction and as a political analyst do seem to have been very different: but I’ve read little of one, and till now nothing of the other, so what do I know?

But this may not be the right place to bring up Marx’s disdain for his rival socialist Lassalle as “a Jewish nigger”, or his denunciation “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.…. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist …. The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.”

Says nothing against Marx’s talents as a writer of fiction.

11

nastywoman 09.09.17 at 5:33 pm

‘Provincial” indeed as in 1917 the ruling House of Hanover changed to ”the House of Windsor” in the United Kingdom -(because of anti-German sentiment in the British Empire during World War I.)
And so the ”German Aristocracy” have provided five British monarchs to date, including four kings and the present queen, Elizabeth II – and the most fun fact – in 1917 Europe was really one kind of HUGE family – as at that time the eldest grandchild of the British Queen Victoria Wilhelm II ruled Germany and ”Prussia” – and nearly ever other European ”ruler” was related to Wilhelm and the British King George V.

Or in other words H. P. Lovecraft could have written about ”the Great United Europe”.

12

Jake Gibson 09.09.17 at 7:25 pm

I was not aware of the poem. And I thought I had read the worst of his racism.
I remember my father talking about De Valera. In a positive way if I remember correctly. I also remember he disliked Bishop Coughlin. He also liked to read Velikovsky and listen to Garner Ted Armstrong on the radio. To be honest he seemed to think of Armstrong as an interesting nut.

13

DCA 09.09.17 at 9:46 pm

“Total separation of civil and religious affairs, the greatest political and intellectual advance since the Renaissance, is … more particularly a Rhode Island triumph..”

This, taken at first glance, seems somewhere between absurd and insane–but, keeping the radical nature of what Roger Williams proposed when founding RI, isn’t really. Certainly nowhere near as nutty as “a separate Ireland would weaken civilization and menace the world’s peace”.

14

F. Foundling 09.09.17 at 10:12 pm

@ steven t johnson 09.09.17 at 12:55 pm
> Do think atheism is entirely compatible with the old religious bigotry … All religions are wrong, but some are more equally wrong than others.

Well, Lovecraft aside, I see no logical reason why an atheist shouldn’t prefer some religions to others, or consider some religions to be more ‘wrong’ (factually or morally, from his perspective) and less in harmony with his/her own preferences and worldview than others. Religions are not races – they are, among other things, sets of claims, attitudes, practices and ways of life, and neither theists nor atheists can be expected to treat all claims, attitudes, practices and ways of life as equal, as opposed to grading them as more or less acceptable.

15

John Holbo 09.10.17 at 12:15 am

“I didn’t read the post, but, respectfully, this strikes me as a particularly American and (white (and Pop-Tart-ingesting)) male postulation, JH.”

It spreads! The darkness spreads!

16

John Holbo 09.10.17 at 12:26 am

The Lovecraft story that is most lurid in the racial department is probably “The Horror At Redhook”. Stuff like this:

“Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor near the ancient waterfront opposite Governor’s Island, with dirty highways climbing the hill from the wharves to that higher ground where the decayed lengths of Clinton and Court Streets lead off toward the Borough Hall. Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter to the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call “Dickensian”. The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill. One can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art and background in bits of detail here and there—a worn flight of steps, a battered doorway, a wormy pair of decorative columns or pilasters, or a fragment of once green space with bent and rusted iron railing. The houses are generally in solid blocks, and now and then a many-windowed cupola arises to tell of days when the households of captains and ship-owners watched the sea.

From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion. The clang of the patrol is answered by a kind of spectral silence, and such prisoners as are taken are never communicative. Visible offences are as varied as the local dialects, and run the gamut from the smuggling of rum and prohibited aliens through diverse stages of lawlessness and obscure vice to murder and mutilation in their most abhorrent guises. That these visible affairs are not more frequent is not to the neighbourhood’s credit, unless the power of concealment be an art demanding credit. More people enter Red Hook than leave it—or at least, than leave it by the landward side—and those who are not loquacious are the likeliest to leave.”

And little touches like this: “Suddenly the leader of the visiting mariners, an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth, pulled forth a dirty, crumpled paper and handed it to the captain.”

I don’t want to overemphasize the difference between Lovecraft’s racial imaginary and the sort of binary white/non-white attitude we think of as the American paradigm. Nor do I wish to suggest that his racial views were so eccentric in his day. I don’t doubt his Providence neighbors worked with somewhat similar categories of nervousness about new arrivals. But it’s interesting, per the post, to note the eccentric notes. The things he says that one might not have predicted.

17

P O'Neill 09.10.17 at 1:58 am

De Valera had huge visibility in the USA from 1919 onwards because of his extended time there giving speeches and fund raising. Of course why he was there for so long and what happened the money is another question!

18

Lee A. Arnold 09.10.17 at 10:42 am

A hectograph! I had a hectograph…

19

Raven 09.10.17 at 11:45 am

John Holbo: “I don’t doubt his ideas were toxic.” — And all too typical of his time and place; they did not stand out among his peers. In fact, he’d absorbed his early ideas and attitudes from his immediate society. It was only from his widespread adult correspondence — his “pen-pals” — and from FDR that he learned to change them later in life.

20

steven t johnson 09.10.17 at 1:59 pm

F. Foundling@14 “…I see no logical reason why an atheist shouldn’t prefer some religions to others, or consider some religions to be more ‘wrong’ (factually or morally, from his perspective) and less in harmony with his/her own preferences and worldview than others. Religions are not races – they are, among other things, sets of claims, attitudes, practices and ways of life, and neither theists nor atheists can be expected to treat all claims, attitudes, practices and ways of life as equal, as opposed to grading them as more or less acceptable.”

In practice, this is likely to mean you believe the colonial occupation of Palestine; the US and Israeli invasions of Lebanon; the Israeli invasions of Egypt; the Israeli occupation of part of Syria; the US intervention into Syria; the invasion and occupation of Iraq; the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan; the US support for the murderous Shah of Iran; the US economic war on Iran; the support for Zia ul-Haq’s dictatorship in Pakistan; support for India against Pakistan; US invasion of Somalia; US support for Ethiopian invasion of Somalia; US support for continued war against Muslims in the Philippines; the support for the hideous massacres in the largely Muslim Indonesia; the French invasions in West Africa; the French colonial war in Algeria; support for the putrid Moroccan monarchy; support for the virulently putrid Saudi monarchy; support for the flamboyantly putrid emirates of the Persian Gulf; support for the Saudi invasion of Yemen; support for the Omani monarchy; attacks on democracy in Iraq and Iran; support for renewed dictatorship in Egypt; indifference to slaughter of Muslims in the Central African Republic; indifference to the slaughter of Muslims in Myanmar; possible funding of hopeless insurgencies in the Uighur and Rohingya populations; support for some sort of Islamization in Turkey (whether Gulenist or Erdoganist, as the mood strikes?); support for mandates and the arbitrary redrawing of boundaries when the Ottoman Empire fell; support for Chechen Islamists fighting Russia (including Ukraine,); support for the Islamicizing of the newly independent states in Central Asia to do away with the Soviet heritage; excising from history the role of Muslim states in creating the High Middle Ages; excusing the Mongols and Europe from any role in the cultural decline of the Muslim world; etc….this likely means you believe this sort of thing is justified because Islam is objectively worse than, well, something. This Sam Harris/Jerry Coyne type of reasoning is equivalent to saying there is no logical reason to reject bigotry. Of course, anyone is entitled to hate others just because they want to, if only because we have no power to command their feelings.

There are however real world reasons to reject this kind of bigotry. At the very least, the “sets of claims” and “attitudes” of religions take us all straight into a morass. Much of this is about aesthetics, and no matter how intensely one feels about how pretty any given religion is, given the continued failure through the centuries to justify a normative aesthetics, we can’t base real world policy on it. For example, the aesthetic feeling left by my upbringing for Russian Orthodoxy is visceral contempt. All the mummery and superstition of the worst of Roman Catholicism, unleavened by any input from other cultures, hopelessly damaged by centuries of servitude to worldly power, provincial, bigoted, shallow…there is a reason no one has ever been sure Russia can even count as part of Christendom! Unlike you, I think it would be foolish to accept the formally logical validity of such aesthetic.

Even worse, the idea that the sets of claims and the attitudes are somehow intrinsic to the people, and causal of the evils they work, inverts reality. Numerous religious people do not even know the actual claims of their religion. And their attitudes can be identical across religions, determined more by conformity to their situation in life than their religion’s sets of claims and attitudes. Atheists who reject religious claims and attitudes can faithfully replicate the bigotry of believers, after all.

Again, the larger claim that religions define practices and ways of life is absurd. If you shrink it down to smaller, realistic claims, like “some religions favor circumcision,” there is no relevance to real world politics in most cases.

In those cases where you might make a case for the relevance of “religion” in some sense serving, maybe not truly as motive, but as rationalization, well, nobody uses objective standards. It’s all about double standards and arbitrary evidence. Nobody suggests that religious belief in Christianity plays a role in the “West’s” habit of attacking Muslim countries, or supporting tyrannies over Muslim people. They don’t even remark how often the “West” and “Christendom” can be exchanged for each other.

As for double standards, Seymour Hersh has told us that the Zionist state plans an genocidal assault by nuclear weapons if they ever suffer a military defeat. Yet no one dares to suggest that objectively Judaism may be the greatest threat. Instead, it is Islam that poses the clash of civilizations.

Even if you limit yourself to single countries, you can’t make sense out of the logical critique by atheists of the practices and ways of life, even whenever the ways of life can actually be distinguished by the naked eye. Scientology’s crank psychotherapy is condemned while twelve-step programs are promoted by media and government, and psychoanalysts still practice. Jehovah’s Witnesses are cranks but Mormons are respectable.

Sorry, no, don’t care about your logic. Your logical power to condemn some religions more than others may be logically indefeasible, but it’s still bigotry in action.

21

Raven 09.11.17 at 1:11 am

I mentioned Lovecraft’s racial attitudes being “all too typical of his time and place”; perhaps for context I should remind readers that in 1915 (three years after HPL wrote that “Creation” poem) President Woodrow Wilson screened the first ever motion picture in the White House, the KKK-glorifying The Birth of a Nation [a.k.a. The Clansman], and remarked: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Not coincidentally, the same year the 20th-century incarnation of the real-life KKK was founded, and by the mid-1920s would claim to number about 4-5 million, roughly 15% of the nation’s eligible population. 50,000 of them marched on Washington, D.C.

It’s a pity the KKK was so anti-Catholic; after all, the Pope had been on the Confederacy’s side regarding slavery (the US ratified the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in 1865; even the next year, 1866, the Vatican declared “Slavery itself…is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law”), having sent Jefferson Davis his autographed photo, having banned abolitionist books, having punished those few US Catholic clergy and monks who had been abolitionist (others actually owned slaves). Many Confederate generals and other officers were Catholic; Catholic Louisiana joined the Confederacy, and Catholic Maryland (bordering D.C.!) would have done the same if Lincoln had not providentially jailed its pro-secession legislators… but then half its eligible soldiers marched off to join the Confederate Army anyway. Not until 1888 did the Vatican “condemn” slavery, and not until 1917 declare in Canon Law that “selling a human being into slavery or for any other evil purpose” is a crime. (As for anti-Semitism, Catholic Good Friday liturgy included the phrase “perfidious Jews” until it was dropped in 1959.)

As linked above, Lovecraft came to his senses before his death in 1937.

But decades and decades later, Irish-Americans like Richard Milhous Nixon (the Nixon ancestors left Ulster in the mid-18th century; the Quaker Milhous family ties were with County Antrim and County Kildare) and Ronald Reagan (the Reagans came from Ballyporeen, County Tipperary) with far more political power were uttering racist rhetoric they never repented to the end of their days:

Nixon – “The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.” “There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white. Or a rape.”

Reagan – Opening his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia MS (previously best known as the site where three civil-rights workers had been murdered and their bodies concealed in an earthen dam with the connivance of local law enforcement) including the keywords “I believe in states’ rights.” Going on about that “welfare queen driving her Cadillac” for years after it had been debunked, and that “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks at the grocery store. Intervening on the side of Bob Jones University in 1982, when it was on the verge of losing its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating. Firing three members of the Civil Rights Commission in 1983. On and on.

But sure, it’s only Lovecraft who should be singled out.

22

F. Foundling 09.11.17 at 2:03 am

@20

>In practice, this is likely to mean you believe…

No.

>Much of this is about aesthetics…

No, it’s about ethics and facts.

>Numerous religious people do not even know the actual claims of their religion. And their attitudes can be identical across religions, determined more by conformity to their situation in life than their religion’s sets of claims and attitudes.

First, many religious people do know the actual claims of their religion and/or do have different attitudes influenced by their religions; religion and ideas in general are *part* of one’s situation in life, and the material and ideological side of life influence each other. Second, even if that somehow, however improbably, weren’t the case, one still could, and indeed inevitably would, assess and grade any given set of claims and attitudes (in this case, those of a religion). Of course there is variation within religions, as there is within most things that one can assess and grade.

>Sorry, no, don’t care about your logic.

You really could have just started and ended with that. :)

23

steven t johnson 09.11.17 at 1:05 pm

F. Foundling@22 “No.” This may be sincere, but sincerity is the cheapest of virtues, available for the low, low price of self-deceit. Putin refused to intervene in Ukraine, openly tolerating the emergence of a fascist regime while protecting a military base. The limited support for the east’s is about keeping refugees from being a problem, while limiting the struggle against the fascists to mere local autonomy, rather than unifying the country. Yet, at the very same time, Putin has engaged massive forces in a brutal campaign to unify Syria under a secular government. I have no idea how anything but prejudice can lead a Russian to pretend Islamists far off in Syria are worse than fascists in one of the Russias. Also, the free hand Putin allows Kadyrov reflects the feeling that the Muslim Chechens are not capable of anything better. If I thought the way you do, I’d conclude that Russian Orthodoxy truly is the nadir of Christianity. I would just as mistaken as you are.

“No, it’s about ethics and facts.” You have no facts, only abstract logic deprived of all meaning. This is not an accident, of course. If you had a case, you’s cite facts. As is, all you have is meaningless verbal formulas about “ethics.” One of the most notorious facts about ethics is that no one actually agrees on purely verbal ethics. There is only the triumph of one claque over another. There is considerable agreement over various forms of practical ethics for individual societies…but it turns out that religion and philosophy can not be shown to determine these. They merely justify them. Law, as a rationalization of practice, is notorious for its problematic relation to ethics. And canon law is notoriously the subject of critique by…the religious.

“First, many religious people do know the actual claims of their religion and/or do have different attitudes influenced by their religions; religion and ideas in general are *part* of one’s situation in life, and the material and ideological side of life influence each other. ” For this to actually mean anything, you would have to start by producing evidence that enough religious people really do know the actual claims for this to matter the way you think it does. Everything I know says this is rather like producing evidence that people who believe in astrology actually know the astronomy required to make a star chart. The self-flattering belief that people are religious is the belief that they are good, special creations, etc. This why they tend to assume the random, vague notions that pop up in their heads are their religion. But being random, vague, meaningless and ephemeral means you can’t plausibly suggest they are independent causes.

Then, you would have to finish by showing how the ideological side of life is produced. Unlike your superstitious version of society, where ideas possessing the heads of believers are a kind of demon, or Holy Spirit, according to your personal prejudices, an actual examination of religion in general shows very little applies in general. About the most you can really say is that religious ideas are a battleground between ideas drawn from the past left behind, against hopes for the future, also drawn from experience of today. But this is true of all ideas, and has no meaning for religion specifically. Unless of course you actually examine the concrete conditions of the religion expressed. But people like you do not do that, never have and never will.

Even worse for you, consistent secularism is incompatible with the insistence on a hierarchy of religions according to your taste. There is no agreement on the objective measures, which means it’s all aesthetics, just as I wrote already. Putin can push Russian Orthodoxy, because it’s more ethical than Judaism and Islam? Seriously, you want to die on that hill?

“Second, even if that somehow, however improbably, weren’t the case, one still could, and indeed inevitably would, assess and grade any given set of claims and attitudes (in this case, those of a religion). Of course there is variation within religions, as there is within most things that one can assess and grade.” My experience is that most people do not accept the principle of variation. The notion for instance that character and choice are responsible for drug addiction rather than variations in the physical response to drugs, the mental wherewithal to deal with habituation, physical and emotional stress in daily life and for that matter, simple variations in random factors in the biography, nope, people who like pure ethics and logic just don’t do this. By your standards, Putin’s promotion of Russian Orthodoxy is perfectly reasonable. But it’s not.

As to the inevitable inability of an individual to suppress all prejudices by a simple act of will? Yes, true, sadly. But renaming this failing a necessary and desirable expression of ethical judgment favors real life prejudice in the execution of actual policies (insofar as individuals have independent power.) Your principles explain how a judge can force a person to attend a twelve-step program whose efficacy has never been studied, but bomb MOVE and the Branch Davidian. Your ethics and logic are useless, because they defy reality.

“You really could have just started and ended with that. :)” Just shows how trying to be polite leads to confusion? Let me rephrase, your logic is worthless because your ideas are shit.

24

Katsue 09.11.17 at 1:08 pm

@17

If I recall the history of the War of Independence I read most recently, De Valera feuded with the leaders of Clan na Gael (the American branch of the IRB), and most of the money raised by his publicity tour was kept by the Clan rather than being remitted to Ireland.

25

plarsen 09.11.17 at 2:36 pm

@16
The Lovecraft story that is most lurid in the racial department is probably “The Horror At Redhook”.

I’m not sure. It is lurid, but “he” goes equally to town on the various people of New York, and “Medusa’s Coil” has the OH NO, SPOILERS shocking revelation at the end that the villain is, worse that being an insane cultist, worse than having a mass of hair that eventually rips itself free goes off on its own to murder, part black… uh, OK?

As for the Lovecraft was a “man of his time” defense, it doesn’t really hold up. Yeah he lived in a time that was more generally and visibly racist than our own, but he was still extreme in his expression of his own racism, and his letters show that pretty clearly. That his racism extended to people we generally consider white today might be a factor of his time, but the depths of his anger isn’t.

Of course, he wasn’t only racist — he was also classist and sexist, and I think a lot of his frenzy was rooted in his own precarious status of “decayed gentility.” His grandfather had been wealthy, and Lovecraft was descended a couple of ways from New England high society, and it’s not hard to see his regular fear of decay and degeneration as a reflection of his own declining fortunes (and cue resentment of immigrants coming into “his country”), the same way that the institutionalization of both his parents is likely one source for his regular use of “inner corruption” and madness as themes. None of this excuses him and his vile views, but it helps put his ideas into some sort of order (if you care to do that).

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F. Foundling 09.11.17 at 2:51 pm

@23

I don’t see much that actually responds meaningfully to what I’ve said. I’ll just reiterate that neither all ideas nor all practices are – or should be – equally acceptable to a human being; and that, yes, ideas do influence practices. I don’t need to prove this, these are extremely general principles of human existence, and there is no reason for religious ideas and practices in particular to be exempt from them.

>Just shows how trying to be polite leads to confusion?

I’m awfully sorry, I admit that I must have missed the part where you were being polite. :)

> your logic is worthless because your ideas are shit.

Please don’t take this personally, but this statement sounds slightly prejudiced against my ideas. You shouldn’t make such claims before you have proved that my ideas are truly causal of my practices, as opposed to merely serving as a rationalisation of my attitudes determined by my objective life situation. Also, there is no general agreement on objective measures determining which ideas are shit, so I’m afraid that your assessment is just an arbitrary expression of your personal aesthetics.

Also, stop interpolating invectives against my idol Putin! Stop, stop, stop! It hurts my soul! I can’t take this anymore! I need to go and kiss my Vova photo now to calm down. If you say something more against Russian Orthodoxy and the Tsar, too, you’ll really drive me insane.

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steven t johnson 09.11.17 at 4:17 pm

F. Foundling@26 Of course trying to assert religious ideas are causal founders on their own incoherence, the ambiguity about how much the alleged believers actually know them, much less adhere to them, and the lack of evidence of a causal connection between ideas and practices. As the Lovecraft case shows, you can’t even separate religious, racial and national ideas. So, no, general human principle of existence or not, no, you do not rank religious ideas as you imagine them and your impressions of their practices on some normative scale.

You can rank idea in general according to how truthful they are, or how well they satisfy appetites. But unless you have a sane conception of how the world works, you have no clue to truth. Thinking bad religious ideas act like demons, wreaking havoc on the people, doesn’t properly count as thinking. And you can try to assess how useful ideas are in satisfying needs and wants, but without a grasp on variation, this too doesn’t count. No one who imagines they can rank religions is open to the very concept of variation.

Specific practices may perhaps be open to certain criticisms…but the people who like you are ranking religions in an aesthetic hierarchy have no interest in actual practices. It’s the ranking you’re about. But you can no more do that than a utilitarian can produce an objective, transitive ranking of the pleasures.

Putin and you share a belief that Russia today is better than the Soviet Union. Where it counts, you are a Putinist. Whether you delude yourself into thinking you are an opponent or not, your criticisms are just backseat driving.

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Raven 09.12.17 at 1:21 am

steven t johnson @ 27: “Thinking bad religious ideas act like demons, wreaking havoc on the people, doesn’t properly count as thinking.”

Errr, actually, look at (for instance) the bad religious ideas that led to a deadly panic around Salem MA in 1692, killing not just the twenty who died through ‘judicial process’ (19 executed, one pressed to death while refusing to plead) but eight others who died in prison (only one of whom had been convicted). D’ye think the same didn’t happen elsewhere?

“Demons” being “spirits” can be taken as metaphors for states of mind — and it is so that Buddhists often use the term, of the “demons” of anger and lust and greed, etc., that can lead us astray (contrasted by such a meditation deity as Tara who personifies compassion) — we are also now used to the more recent terms “memes” and “mindworms” for mentally contagious concepts that can in some cases be dangerous.

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F. Foundling 09.12.17 at 4:39 am

@27
This is boring, I’m forced to state obvious things. Even (sets of) ideas that are incoherent can influence people, and the ways in which they are likely to do so can differ between different (sets of) ideas and be assessed. And even when some people don’t know them, some inevitably do and try to take them into account (and many obey the leaders who do so or claim to do so). And even just providing rationalisations is a form of influence. And even if ideas didn’t influence people, that still wouldn’t prevent me from ranking them on a normative scale. And even things that vary can be ranked. And even if only ‘specific practices’ were open to criticisms, they could still be ranked. I won’t argue about this anymore. I might come back to the issue of religions later, but I see no point in continuing this particular exchange.

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F. Foundling 09.12.17 at 4:42 am

@27
>Putin and you share a belief that Russia today is better than the Soviet Union.

Nope – as a matter of fact, I haven’t said that either. You keep furiously talking to ghosts in your head instead of the actual people that you are communicating with. One has to feel a little sorry, actually – it makes the impression of a person yelling at shadows on the wall of a dungeon cell. In fact, I think that this propensity of yours might spring from the same source as your tendency to justify the killing of people you don’t know anything about, too. Anyway, I’m afraid that I can’t help you in any way. As I said, done for now.

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Jesús Couto Fandiño 09.12.17 at 8:02 am

On Lovecraft and racism, for personal reasons (like, I’m a Spaniard) I’m fascinated by his tale “Cool Air”. I mean, you read it, and you get the simultaneous feeling that he hated and depised people that would be more or less my grandparents – barely educated peasants deciding to start over in the New World – while again showing this strange side of total fascination with the “alien” in his view; the description of the doctor, with all the “Orientalist” details, is yet another case in which he seems to be completly in awe and fascinated by the things he says he hates.

And it is not the only one, the Innsmouth tale having a similar fascination for the Deep Ones and the transformatin of the narrator. For a guy that seemed to operate on a principle that perfect civilization was WASP New England and anything else was degenerate, he sure seemed to get weirdly fascinated by the “others” that half the time look more wise, powerful and desirable than that yankee provincial utopia…

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