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Nov. 24th, 2009 @ 08:11 pm Volume 3, Number 1
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ORIGIN OF SPECIES

Today, November 24, 2009, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s masterwork, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In future postings I’ll have a lot to say about this remarkable book and its extraordinary author: the coming of the Darwinian worldview, after all, is the subject of my novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Galápagos Regained. But for now I simply want to salute The Origin of Species, whose implications for what David Hume called “human understanding” we have barely begun to grasp.

Darwin invited our bewildered race to jump into a theological whirlpool. Those of us who’ve made the leap axiomatically find ourselves in a state of disorientation. And yet, like Edgar Allan Poe’s mariner in “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” some of us imagine that we’re starting to interpret correctly the mechanics of the vortex, and our lives feel infinitely the richer for it. It is not given to my generation to comprehend fully what Daniel Dennett and others have called “Darwin’s dangerous idea,” just as it was not given to the generation that came before me — and just as it will not be given to the generation that comes after me. But one fine day, I like to believe, Homo sapiens sapiens will at long last come to terms with its materialist origins, perhaps even shedding some of religion’s more unsavory aspects in the process.


THANK YOU, ORRIN HATCH

Owing to a singularly outrageous bit of demagoguery by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, I have finally gotten over my blogger’s block. Thank you, Mr. Hatch. You have awakened a sleeping freethinker and filled him with a terrible resolve.

In its coverage of the epic health-care debate, the Washington Post yesterday revealed that the leaders of the Christian Science Church are lobbying to have sick people reimbursed by insurers for the services of professional prayer providers. As an example of how this system would work, the Post adduced one Prue Lewis, “a thin, frail-looking woman from Columbia Heights.” One cannot argue with Ms. Lewis’s prices, which range from a paltry $20 to a mere $40 per intercession, but almost everything else about the proposal is odious in the extreme.

Senator Hatch, whom some of you may remember from his ruthless trashing of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation fiasco, claims that the Christian Science amendment would “ensure that health-care reform law does not discriminate against any religion.” Well, no. What the provision would ensure, Mr. Hatch, is that a legislator may henceforth float the most flagrantly unconstitutional bills imaginable and, given the automatic deference to religion that characterizes our culture, instantly receive the approbation of his or her fellow theocrats.

It would be difficult to frame a more frontal assault on the First Amendment than this chilling suggestion by “the Church of Christ, Scientist,” an epithet whose Tibetan Buddhist equivalent in the Mary Baker Eddy Parallel Universe would be something like “the Fellowship of the Dalai Lama, War Monger.” The Bill of Rights famously begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...” As Justice Hugo Black frequently had to remind his colleagues on the bench, “No law means no law.”


THE HITCHENS EMETIC

Now permit me to carry the debate to the theocrats’ camp. A modicum of Googling quickly discloses that the most rigorous investigation undertaken to date of prayer’s alleged efficacy, the study that Dr. Herbert Benson conducted on behalf of the Templeton Foundation, suggests that there is no correlation between Heaven and health — with one notable exception. While a majority of Benson’s heart-surgery patients did not know whether the Almighty was being importuned on their behalf, one group of prayer recipients was in fact privy to this information, forthwith suffering a disproportionate number of complications. In retrospect, this outcome seems inevitable. The intended beneficiaries of the solicitations doubtless felt tremendous pressure to put some points on God’s side of the scoreboard, and the concomitant cardiac stress interfered with their recoveries.

In light of the Templeton Foundation study, I’m thinking of telling my favorite Republican senators that, as they attempt to do away with medical malpractice suits, they should make a point of noting that, under certain circumstances, prayer may constitute a form of patient abuse. Somehow I don’t believe that, in crafting their irrelevant amendments aimed at tort reform, these legislators will adopt my language, but you never know. The Party of Reagan will sometimes surprise you, God bless 'em. Look at my own Democratic senator, Arlen Specter, who managed to rival Orrin Hatch in his ill-informed viciousness toward Anita Hill. Once a Republican, Specter now sits opportunistically on the other side of the aisle.

According to Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, the toxicity of supernaturalist beliefs does not stop with prayer. The entire enterprise of faith is bad for you. While I dissent from many of Hitchens’s political and philosophical views — another day’s discussion — allow me to come clean and admit that I feel more than a little solidarity with the book’s subtitle, How Religion Poisons Everything.

My qualified sympathy for Hitchens’s thesis is rooted in my experience as an author of theologically playful novels. Leaf through my fan-mail file, and you’ll find many letters from former believers thanking me for indirectly helping them recover from the pathologies inherent in certain varieties of Christianity. For these apostates, Only Begotten Daughter, Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon, and the rest have evidently functioned as a kind of pill — just as Hitchens’s book has doubtless proved therapeutic for many of his numerous readers.

Given my intuition that Hitchens is on to something, I’m thinking of approaching my favorite Democratic senators and insisting that they add a manifestly necessary amendment to the health-care reform package. To wit, anyone who purchases a copy of God Is Not Great with the aim of enjoying its salutary effects should be reimbursed in full. Using the current Amazon.com prices as a guideline, this means you would get back $15.74 for acquiring the hardcover, $10.19 for the paperback, and $9.99 for the Kindle version. I can’t help noting that each of these editions is cheaper than a prayer from Prue Lewis.
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Feb. 13th, 2009 @ 12:12 am “Shambling Towards Hiroshima” Book Tour
February began auspiciously for people with nothing better to do with their time than read James Morrow’s fiction.

My stand-alone novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima was released on the first of the month, and the Perennial trade paperback edition of The Philosopher’s Apprentice appeared a few days later.

Set in 1945, Shambling Towards Hiroshima is another one of those historical epics about the U.S. Navy’s attempt to leverage an unconditional Japanese surrender by breeding giant mutant fire-breathing iguanas that weirdly anticipate a certain famous Japanese movie monster.

Son Chris recently interviewed me about the project:

Not only that, the publishers prepared a book trailer:


To meet the author in person, come to one or some or all of the following events:

Saturday, February 14, 3:00 PM. Kaffeeklatsch at Boskone 46, Weston Waterfront Hotel, Boston MA (Galleria).

Sunday, February 15, 1:00 PM. Reading at Boskone (Griffin Room).

Wednesday, February 18, 7:00 PM. Reading at KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street (near Second Avenue), New York NY.

Wednesday, March 11, 6:00 PM. “From Hollywood to Hiroshima: A Tribute to Lon Chaney, Jr.” (first presentation). Syms Thorley, the protagonist of Shambling Towards Hiroshima, is based on B-horror movie legend Lon Chaney, Jr. James Morrow will introduce and discuss two Chaney classics, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944). The Variety Preview Room, 582 Market Street, 1st floor of Hobart Building, San Francisco CA.

Thursday, March 12, 7:00 PM. Reading and signing at Clayton Books, 5433 D Clayton Road, Clayton CA.

Friday, March 13, 7:00 PM. Reading and signing at Borderlands Books, 866 Valencia Street, San Francisco CA.

Sunday March 15, 2:00 PM. Reading at University of Washington Bookstore, Seattle WA.

Monday, March 16. “From Hollywood to
Hiroshima: A Tribute to Lon Chaney, Jr.” (second presentation). Syms Thorley, the protagonist of Shambling Towards Hiroshima, is based on B-horror movie legend Lon Chaney, Jr. James Morrow will introduce and discuss two Chaney classics, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944). NW Film Forum, 515 12th Ave, Seattle, WA.

March 21, 8:30-10:00 AM. Reading with Rob Sawyer and Ted Chiang, International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, Orlando, FL.

Saturday, April 11, 3:30 PM. Presentation at American Atheists Convention, Atlanta GA.

Thursday, April 23, 8:00 PM. Reading at Temple University Center City, Market Street, Room 222, Philadelphia PA.

Friday, April 24, 7:30 PM. Reading at “The Philadelphia Fantastic Authors and Editors Series,” Moonstone Art Center, 110A South 13th Street, 2nd Floor, Philadelphia PA.

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Oct. 5th, 2008 @ 11:14 am Come to Capclave and Meet Gorgantis
If you have nothing better to do on October 17-19, pop over to Washington D.C. for Capclave, to which I have been appointed Author Guest of Honor. I’m especially eager to hold forth on the Saturday afternoon panel called “Science versus Religion.” For my public reading, I’ll offer a scene from my forthcoming novella, Shambling Towards Hiroshima, all about Gorgantis, a giant mutant bipedal iguana that the U.S. Navy hopes will end World War Two. Details available at this website: www.capclave.org/capclave08/
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Oct. 4th, 2008 @ 09:46 pm Volume 2, Number 4
McCAIN AND THE ENABLER

With Thursday night’s Vice Presidential debate, the race for the White House took on a decidedly surrealistic tone. I now see the bizarre duo of John McCain and Sarah Palin as the principal characters in a kind of reversed-polarity Doctor Who, with McCain as a malign Time Lord, flitting about the cosmos starting wars and seeding environmental catastrophes, and Palin as his comely but feckless Companion, giggling at his Chelsea Clinton jokes, cheering him on as he reenacts his funny-ha-ha antics of April 19, 2007 (when he gleefully sang, with no apologies to the Beach Boys, “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” in response to a voter’s suggestion that it was high time we nuked the ragheads), winking at Jesus every time the Doctor convinces yet another alien race that the theory of evolution is a swindle.

Many were the absurdities flowing from the lectern to Gwen Ifill’s right. Some were simply risible, as when Palin churlishly corrected Joe Biden concerning the Republicans’ fossil fuel chant. Others were depressingly idiotic, such as her argument to the effect that the Founding Fathers would have applauded Dick Cheney’s power grabs. Palin can’t be bothered to read the United States Constitution, but by God she knows it’s “Drill, baby, drill!” not “Drill, drill, drill!” And a few of Palin’s remarks were so frightening as to beggar my powers of parody. Here, for example, are her thoughts — if that is the word — on the threat posed by the hydrogen bomb: “Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period.”

Now, as folks with a modicum of respect for English usage know, the “be-all and end-all” is the most important part of something. And since Ifill’s question concerned the potential deployment of America’s nuclear arsenal, I can only speculate that for Palin these devices may have certain feel-good Pentecostal uses, such as exterminating Muslims and hastening the Rapture. We love you, Sarah. Bring on the Apocalypse. Wink, baby, wink.

For readers sympathetic to a secular-humanist worldview, I suspect the low point of the debate occurred when Palin exclaimed, “Say it ain’t so, Joe! There you go pointing backwards again ... Now, doggone it, let’s look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education, and I’m glad you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for thirty years, and God bless her. Her reward is in Heaven, right?”

What’s going on here? Can Palin be unaware that a person who’s taught school for thirty years has already known many satisfactions and needn’t await validation by a nonexistent Eternity? More importantly, does it not occur to Palin that mindless buddy-Christ banter about wives receiving rewards in Heaven might not go down well with a man who tragically lost his wife in a car accident?

My fellow Pennsylvanians, you have until Monday to register to vote. My lovely passionate rationalists, please make your way to the polls come November 4 and do what’s necessary to keep war-mongering and palin-dromes out of the White House. Barak Obama strikes me as a savvy, articulate, and compassionate man, and on Tuesday night Joe Biden came across as an authentic public servant. Let’s transfer these two senators from the Legislative Branch to the Executive.


THE CONUNDRUM OF MARTYDOM

In the previous issue I raised the question, “Does atheism fail to get traction in our culture because it’s not an idea that people are willing to die for?” Several of you weighed in with thoughtful and nuanced responses. I would commend to your attention the Dr. Pearce of April 22, the Jane Orben of July 2, the Anonymous of July 19, and the Anonymous of August 6. I agree with the tenor of all of these posts.

I wonder if perhaps the notion of an atheist martyr suffers from a fundamental incoherence. People of a rationalist bent are generally repulsed by transcendent truths and totalizing belief systems, especially since sooner or later such worldviews normally entail the shedding of innocent blood. It’s a short leap from dying for what you believe in to expecting others to die for what you believe in.

I’m also tempted to argue that, because the average self-immolator anticipates some sort of sentient existence after death (perhaps through reincarnation, more commonly through admission to Heaven), he or she is not giving up nearly as much as the hypothetical atheist martyr. There is nothing remotely trivial about martyrdom, but an atheist who arranged to die for his non-belief would arguably be committing the ultimate in nontrivial acts.

I like to think that, were the option ever visited upon me, I would willingly give up my life to save a loved one. But I would never die for atheism as a principle, atheism per se. The very concept strikes me as self-contradictory. It creeps me out in ways that are difficult to articulate.

We recently revived Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi here on our rear-projection screen. This time through, I was struck by the dark side of Mahatma’s way of being in the world — a facet that I don’t believe Attenborough intended to dramatize. Jane Orben puts her finger on the problem in her post of July 2. Violence against oneself is still violence. I would vastly prefer an alternative-universe Gandhi who renounced religious faith altogether, instead of the one who merely argued that all supernaturalistic beliefs are commensurate.


REST IN PEACE, DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

On September 12 we lost one of our best. Good-bye, David Foster Wallace. You were some kind of a genius, and by all reports you were wonderfully generous with your gifts, constantly doing right by your students, friends, and colleagues. Every time I venture into your magnificent mess of a novel, Infinite Jest, I am awestruck by its manic energy and endless inventiveness. How infinitely sad that we shall have no more such performances from you.

When I heard the news about David Foster Wallace I was reading the biography of John Kennedy Toole, Ignatius Rising by René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy.  Toole was another great novelist, and another depressive who finally couldn’t take it anymore. It was all too much. I put the book aside and managed to finish it only on Friday.
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Apr. 26th, 2008 @ 12:10 pm Volume 2, Number 3
LETTING GO OF POOKA

Go to my website, click on Moses’s tablet labeled “Photos and Bio,” and scroll down to the third mage: a Border collie named Pooka.  In recent weeks she’d been rendered almost immobile by arthritis, and her throat had swollen with untreatable cancer.  The veterinarian and his assistant came out to the house on Monday.  Everybody was there to say good-bye to our doghisattva: my wife, son, daughter, son-in-law, grandson, incipient second grandchild.

I’ve been crying off and on for almost a week.  Wrenching though it is, such grief is strangely affirming, and there are times when I deliberately seek it out.  It’s a sorrow to cherish and cultivate.

My father’s death felt different, nothing but despair, and of course I can imagine losses that would be completely intolerable, losses from which I would never truly recover.  This is different.  Good-bye, dear Pooka. You were a beautiful creature who brought an extra measure of love and magic into our house, and now you can no longer be with us, and I am so very sad.


THE AUDACITY OF THE POPE

If you’ve been following the news, you know that Pope Benedict XVI was on these shores recently, once again setting us straight about the evils of modernity.  He deplored the “subtle influence of secularism” that sometimes leads even Catholics to accept abortion, divorce, and co-habitation outside of marriage.  This is a very bizarre argument.  The last time I looked, the Catholic Church had an arrangement with God whereby, if the sinner didn’t play his or her eschatological cards right, anyone who indulged in those three particular abominations would roast eternally in Lucifer’s flames.

Whatever one thinks of the perdition theory of human destiny, it can hardly be accused of nuance.  What’s going on here?  Does the Pope believe that subliminal secular pressures automatically exert a more tenacious hold on people’s imaginations than does the lurid drama of damnation?  How can that possibly be?  Or does the Pope himself no longer believe in Hell?  If that’s the case, I wish he would come out and say so.  It would make for an interesting news item.

Before heading back to Rome, Benedict XVI managed to put in his usual good word for Christian theocracy: “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted.”  I can’t help pointing out that, when it came to the chronic crisis of sexual predation by priests, the average complicitous bishop was perfectly willing to treat religion as a private matter.  God forbid that the secular courts should get involved.  They might have actually put a stop to the abuse, which would have precluded the fantasy — doubtless entertained by many a bishop as he diligently covered up his underlings' crimes — whereby the randy shepherd would repent his depravity and do everything in his power to heal his victims.  But the fantasy, to the best of my knowledge, rarely if ever enjoyed incarnation.


ATHEISM: AN IDEA TO DIE FOR?

Earlier this month that engaging Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett spoke on our campus.  He shared his views on the ways that Darwinian evolution may operate outside a strictly genetic realm — through memes, cultural artifacts, and that nebulous-but-vital thing we call “ideas.”  Dennett’s detractors routinely accuse him of reductionism.  They may have a point, but I’m inclined to say, “Reductionism is nothing but an honest attempt to get things right.”

Afterwards, as a bunch of us got to chatting in the foyer, a friend of mine, an anthropologist, raised a provocative question.  “Does atheism fail to get traction in our culture because it’s not an idea that people are willing to die for?”  I have some opinions on the matter, which I shall share in the near future.  Meanwhile, if any of you wishes to weigh in, be my guest.
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Mar. 15th, 2008 @ 05:45 pm "The Philosopher's Apprentice" Book Tour
March 18, Reading and Signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Pittsburgh PA, 7:00 PM ... March 19, Reading and Signing at Barnes & Noble, State College PA, 7:00 PM ... March 20-22, Appearance at International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, Orlando FL ... March 27, Reading and Signing at Borders Books and Music, Bryn Mawr PA, 7:00 PM ... March 28, Reading and Signing at Barnes & Noble, Philadelphia PA (“Philly Fantastic” series), 7:30 PM ... April 29, Reading and Signing at SUNY Orange Community College, Middletown NY, 7:00 PM ... May 1, Appearance at Trinity College, Hartford CT ... May 1, Appearance at Hartford Seminary, Hartford CT.
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Feb. 8th, 2008 @ 01:20 pm Volume 2, Number 2
SUPER SUNDAY AND SUPER TUESDAY

Although fiction is, and always will be, stranger than truth, this was the week in which two underdog teams, the New York Giants and the Arkansas Theocrats, scored unexpected successes under the leadership of Eli Manning and Mike Huckabee respectively. 

Before landing here in State College, Pennsylvania, I lived near Boston for fourteen years, and so I was inclined to wish the New England Patriots well in the Super Bowl.  But given the Pats’ recent knavery with their video camera, plus my generally chary attitude toward orthodox opinion — the received wisdom whereby the Patriot receivers were unstoppable — I ended up rooting for the Giants.  It was an amazing victory, the sort of upset that helps me to understand why God invented football.

I wish that scifi.com still archived the fiction that the estimable Ellen Datlow acquired for that site, because I would now link to my story called “The Fate of Nations,” which reveals the real reason men are so obsessed with professional sports.  It turns out that we all have tiny radios embedded in our ears, through which we obtain the inside dope on what’s actually at stake in any given game.  For example, did you know that, because the Oakland Raiders emerged as AFC Wild Card Team in 1980, women got the vote on the planet known as 14 Herculis Gamma?  The narrator, Carlotta, is married to a Boston sports fanatic.  For her, ESPN stands for Expect Sex Practically Never. 


AMERICA: THE DEIST NATION    

Far less soothing than Sunday’s Super Bowl upset was Tuesday’s primary-election voting, which awarded five states to Mike Huckabee, candidate of homophobes, anti-feminists, and Jesus Christ. 

The man doesn’t have a prayer of receiving his party’s Presidential nod, of course, but we can’t rule out the possibility that he’ll become the Vice-Presidential nominee.  The only amusement I would derive from a McCain-Huckabee ticket would be watching certain hidebound religionists squirm at the progressive strands in Huckabee’s worldview.  Evidently the former Arkansas governor has actually read the Gospels — conservative Evangelicals vastly prefer the Epistles, where they find considerable corroboration of their views concerning women, gays, and the end of the world — and he seems to have noticed that Jesus had a word or two to say about compassion for the downtrodden.

Let’s say it loud: the framers of the U.S. Constitution did not intend for America to become a Christian nation.  They were Deists and freethinkers who were fed up to the teeth with religious wars and the centuries-long collaboration between God and tyranny, and Evangelical parents who say otherwise at the dinner table are lying to their children.  True, the architects of our republic were not atheists in the modern sense, and they doubtless envisioned religious observances occurring throughout the new nation.  But after we take note of Benjamin Franklin’s well-documented skepticism concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ, it becomes hard to make the case that the Founding Fathers were singing out of the same hymn book as John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards. 


OBAMA AND GOD

Way back in July of 2006, Barak Obama tackled the thorny question of religion in the public sphere, writing a guest column headed “Politicians Need Not Abandon Religion” in the pages of USA Today.  He generally acquitted himself well, I thought, arguing that “the separation of church and state in American has preserved not only our democracy but also the robustness of our religious practice ... This separation is critical to our form of government because in the end, democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values.”

Obama’s reasoning would never stand up to the demagoguery of a Cal Thomas, who would surely insist that conservative Christian opinions are nothing if not universal, “religion-specific” only in the sense that Christianity happens to be the only entirely accurate religion that God has thus far vouchsafed the cosmos.  But in an age when theocracy is everywhere making its case, in a discourse that ranges from suicide bombings to Huckabee’s Tuesday night triumphs, an age when the United States now has an undeclared (and unconstitutional) religious test for office, we can be thankful that a Presidential candidate is out there making a qualified case for secularism.

At only one point in his USA Today piece did Obama stumble, in my view: “Moreover, it’s wrong to ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square ... To say men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality.”  Note that Obama comes dangerously close here to ratifying the assumption that the only people on the planet with a “personal morality” are those who identify with a particular religion. 

I think it’s fair to argue that atheists have now surpassed gays as the primary minority about whom you can say almost anything you feel like in public discourse.  When it comes to raw political and social intolerance, of course, it’s far harder to be gay than godless — nobody is proposing that atheists not be allowed to marry — but it still saddens me that no avowed secularist could begin to imagine running for President.

Enough said.  Since I became old enough to vote, I have never observed anything in American politics as heartening as the Barack Obama phenomenon, and I wish my friend Benjamin Franklin -- the second most important character in The Last Witchfinder -- had lived to see it.


THE LATEST LINKS

I recently enjoyed a pleasant chat with Kim MacDougall, concerning The Philosopher’s Apprentice and other matters, on Between the Cracks Digest.

http://www.kimmcdougall.com/Interview.html

“The Fate of Nations” is available in my last collection, The Cat’s Pajamas, from Tachyon Books.
 
http://www.tachyonpublications.com
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Jan. 29th, 2008 @ 02:59 pm Volume 2, Number 1

A NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION

To blog or not to blog?  That is the question that plagued me throughout 2006 and 2007.  The cause of my procrastination was not complex.  I simply felt obligated to focus my creative energies on fiction writing.  I did not blog for the same reason that most NFL players do not play chess on the night before a game.

But now my policy has changed.  My natural Darwinian instinct for self promotion tells me that the Morrow family might have more groceries to eat were I to resurrect The Passionate Rationalist.  What’s more, several fans have written lamenting the demise of this particular Grand Fenwick of cyberspace.  They particularly enjoyed the postings back in 2005 concerning IDIOT: Intelligent Design Implicit Onto-Theology.  

It also occurs to me that I can use this blog to focus my thinking on various works-in-progress, with welcome kibitzing from interested readers.  At the moment, four pieces of inchoate Morrow fiction loom on the horizon: a novel concerning the life and times of Charles Darwin, a novella about the true relationship between Godzilla and Hiroshima, a short story featuring Jack the Ripper, and a short-short narrating the further adventures of the Good Samaritan.  Details will emerge in forthcoming installments.


ILLUSIONLESS MONSTERS

On March 11, William Morrow will publish The Philosopher’s Apprentice, my ninth novel.  At one level, this existential extravaganza is my homage to Frankenstein, by which I mean not only Mary Shelly’s original novel but also the various cinematic adaptations from Universal and Hammer.  Indeed, at one point during the composition process, I spent a gloriously decadent weekend screening every major Frankenflick on our equally decadent 65” rear-projection television.

About midway through the composition of The Philosopher’s Apprentice, it occurred to me that I was working within an established literary tradition — just as, while writing Blameless in Abaddon, I suddenly realized that the project had antecedents in the dozen or so modern-dress retellings of the Book of Job that, over the years, have flowed from the pens of writers as diverse as Franz Kafka, Robert Heinlein, Robert Frost, and Archibald MacLeish. 

The Philosopher’s Apprentice is about a moral monster.  Londa Sabacthani’s conscience has swelled to grotesque proportions.  At first, my heroine’s hypertropic superego inspires her to perform benevolent acts, including the establishment of a utopian community dedicated to improving the welfare of women.  Later, her skewed moral compass leads her to a dark place, and he ends up hijacking a luxury liner with the aim of rehabilitating its plutocratic passengers.  

What most intrigued me about Londa is her refusal — or is it her inability? — to filter out the moral implications of her behavior.  When she takes the side of the angels, she knows exactly what she’s doing, and later, when her soul begins to rot, she still enjoys an impressive, if chilling, perspective on herself.  In short, Londa is not only a moral monster, she's a self-aware moral monster, and I would bracket her with such fictive predecessors as Humbert Humbert, the Marquis de Sade, and Sweeney Todd.


MORROW AT THE MOVIES

As a film aficionado, I must note that the three self-aware moral monsters cited above have all been the subjects of recent feature films.  The critics were generally unimpressed by Adrian Lyne’s 1998 adaptation of Lolita, but I would urge all you passionate rationalists to give it a second chance.  Scene by scene, Stephen Schiff’s script is far more faithful to the novel than the earlier, equally worthy version by Stanley Kubrick (ostensibly written by Nabokov himself, though a brief survey of the film’s ragged history reveals that the credit is misleading), and, moreover, most of the self-aware monster’s crucial lines emerge intact.  I don’t recall the exact phrasing employed by Schiff, but we certainly get Jeremy Irons delivering a version of Humbert’s pathological apologia, “Why then this horror that I cannot shake off?  Did I deprive her of her flower?  Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover.”
 
An equally satisfying foray into this fecund theme is Philip Kaufman’s 2000 adaptation of Doug Wright’s play about the Marquis de Sade, Quills.  The essential idea is not exactly subtle — to find the real monster among us, we must look beyond affected pornographers like De Sade and instead attend ostensibly virtuous physicians like Royer-Collard — but that hardly detracts from the brilliant performances and hypnotic directorial flourishes.  As you might imagine, it’s hard for James Morrow not to love a movie in which Geoffrey Rush’s De Sade flourishes a Bible and says to Joaquin Phoenix’s curate Coulmier, “This monstrous God of yours — he strung up his own son like a side of veal: I shudder to imagine what he would do to me.”

Concerning Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I’m persuaded that many of your will find much to admire in this dark Victorian melodrama.  Yes, it was a miserable miscalculation to delete “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from the score, and, yes, the decision to use cataracts of blood as an expressionist design motif — welcome to The Abattoir of Dr. Caligari — was dubious at best.  But Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, and Stephen Sondheim have collaborated to give us the quintessential illusionless monster, leavening their pessimistic potpourri with a bracing measure of Dickensian outrage over social injustice.  Sweeney Todd was the most moral movie of 2007


OBLIVIOUS MONSTERS

Counterpointing the Humberts, Sades, and Todds is the oblivious monster, a creature that invariably does the world far more harm than his illusionless brethren.  It’s interesting that plays and novels about self-aware monsters generally give us oblivious monsters as important secondary characters: Clare Quilty in Lolita, Dr. Royer-Collard in Quills, Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd.  

The late Reverend William Sloan Coffin, God rest his soul, was astute in recognizing that George Bush and his coterie of thugs belong to this particular terratoid species.  But it was Tolstoy, in War and Peace, who gave us the definitive portrait of the oblivious monster.  Here he is writing of Napoleon at Borodino:

“Our fire is mowing them down in rows, but they still want more,” said the adjutant.

“They want more,” said Napoleon huskily.

“Sire?” said the adjutant, who had not caught the words.

“They want more,” Napoleon repeated in a hoarse voice.  “Give it to them!”

Even without this order, which was given only because he thought it was expected of him, his wish was being carried out.  And he relapsed into that artificial world of fantasies of greatness, and again (as a horse on a treadmill may imagine it is doing something of its own accord), he submissively undertook to fulfill the cruel, grievous, harsh, and inhuman role that was predestined for him.

And not only on that day and hour were the mind and conscience darkened in that man on whom the burden of what was happening weighed more heavily than on anyone else, but always, to the end of his life, he was incapable of understanding goodness, beauty, truth, or the significance of his own actions, which were too contrary to goodness and truth, too remote from everything human for him to be able to grasp their meaning.  He could not disavow his actions, lauded as they were by half the world, and so he was obligated to repudiate truth, goodness, and all humanity.

Last night, George Bush delivered a State of the Union message.  I did not have the heart to watch.


THE LATEST LINKS

I’m particularly proud of the collaboration between my wife and I that Tor Books published last June.  The SFWA European Hall of Fame is an anthology of sixteen stories by contemporary European science fiction stories, each in English translation.  Sales have been much slower than we would like, especially to libraries.  Tell your local librarian that you’d like to see this idealistic omnibus on the shelf.

http://www.amazon.com

A recent conversation between Darrell Schweitzer and James Morrow has been posted on Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com

Among the many favorable reviews received by The Last Witchfinder, the observations of Janet Maslin in the New York Times stuck me as particularly valuable.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/30/books/30masl.html?fta=y


FUTURE TOPICS

In subsequent issues, I hope to report on a remarkable conference I attended last spring in Crystal City, Virginia.  The topic was atheism and the guest line-up was astonishing: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens -- all of whom, as you know, have written best-sellers celebrating the secular-humanist way of being in the world.

Could it be that the Enlightenment is coming back?

 
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Sep. 19th, 2005 @ 10:48 pm Volume 1, Number 4
SUMMER OF THE WITCH

It’s manifestly obvious that I didn’t get any blogging done this summer. I did accomplish a lot of traveling though — a teaching gig with Jeanne Cavelos’s Odyssey Fantasy Workshop in New Hampshire (many bright embryonic writers on the premises), a visit to Ron Adams’s estimable Monster Bash convention in Pennsylvania (terrific inspiration for my Frankenstein homage-in-progress), a muggy seven-mile jog in the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod (during which I accomplished my twin goals of not stopping and not coming in last), a trip to Maine with my poker buddies (to build a retaining wall for a wayward member who just bought a humungous house in Eastport), and several tours of prospective colleges with son Christopher — but mostly I worked with the various texts of “The Last Witchfinder.” The American and UK editions will appear almost simultaneously, and so I had to deal with two different sets of editor’s comments, copy editor’s suggestions, and page proofs.

This was, needless to say, an exhausting enterprise, “The Last Witchfinder” being my attempt at what Northrup Frye calls the “encyclopedic form” — a literary work that presumes to go beyond the normal parameters of fiction to capture something essential about an entire culture or era. For better or worse, “The Last Witchfinder” is my stab at an idea-driven epic in the tradition of Barth’s “The Sot-Weed Factor,” Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Lockridge’s “Raintree County,” and Gardner’s “The Sunlight Dialogues.” My faithful customary readers — and my leap-of-faith new readers — can decide whether I’ve succeeded in this immodest ambition, or at least failed in interesting ways.

And now, at last, I am reunited with “The Passionate Rationalist.” You’ll see that I’ve finally gotten around to answering specific comments — some of them bracingly adversarial — from readers. Peruse them at your leisure.


KATRINA’S WRATH, BUSH’S VOUCHERS, GOD’S PIED-À-TERRE

I imagine that we all have slightly different ideas on how best to help the crippled city of New Orleans and its criminally mistreated population. Upon hearing the terrible news about Katrina, several of my neighbors immediately headed south with truckloads of material goods for the victims. My wife Kathy has been supporting efforts to rescue stranded animals who would otherwise starve to death. I am particularly moved by a recent posting here from Jacob Rakovan of the American Public Schools Endowments, which seeks to repair or replace public school buildings scoured by Katrina’s wrath. Tune in this URL to learn more:

http://www.apse.us

Admittedly, I can’t separate my sympathy for the APSE effort from my antipathy toward George Bush. As I said in my reply to Mr. Rakovan, Mr. Bush has been quite explicit about his intention to use the New Orleans reconstruction project as a Trojan horse for sneaking his dubious voucher system into the hearts and minds of bewildered parents seeking the best education for their children.

Let us never forget that in Mr. Bush we have a man who would lose little sleep if all of America’s public schools burned down one night, clearing the way for a hundred thousand religious academies, each bent on securing every young person’s right to be spared the bad news that Charles Darwin brought back from his voyage around the world. Reading between the lines of Bush’s cant, I am forced to conclude that for him the public schools are essentially a socialist institution, woefully isolated from God’s pied-à-terre — the hallowed private sector — and so the sooner we get rid of them, the better. No child left stranded on the Galápagos Islands!


“LAS ENCANTADAS” REVISITED

I was pleased to see that Volume 1, Number 3 generated a heated discussion on the matter of IDIOT — Intelligent Design Implicit Onto-Theology — some of it perhaps more discourteous than necessary, but most of it worth reading. For the next several paragraphs I would like to return briefly to “Las Encantadas,” the Bewitched Isles, the Galápgos. In particular, I would like to revisit the question raised by Adam: isn’t it only fair — sporting, open-minded, American, whatever — to present students with the “creationism” or “intelligent design” alternative to Darwin’s theory?

Well, no. Because right out of the gate, it’s simply not clear on what legitimate curricular grounds a high-school biology teacher might drag IDIOT into the classroom. To address the controversy in an intellectually honest fashion is to open up a can of worms — evolved worms, divinely created worms, take your pick, kids — that I suspect IDIOT’s partisans would prefer to keep sealed.

I suppose an astute teacher could devise a fairly substantive unit called “A Brief History of Dubious Science, from Phlogiston to Cold Fusion,” and this might afford her students a coherent context in which to ponder IDIOT. She might begin by informing the class that Darwin’s opponents are fond of adducing the Second Law of Thermodynamics as prima facie evidence against evolutionary theory. Next, of course, she would be obliged to explain that the Second Law of Thermodynamics has no such implications, and those who would construe it that way are in all probability scoundrels or mountebanks. But somehow I don’t think this is the sort of discourse that IDIOT’s proponents wish to encourage.

Alternatively, the biology teacher could construct a curricular module called “The Psychodynamics of Faith.” In her introductory lecture, she might note — as I do in one of my comments on the Volume 1, Number 3 posts — that for many religious conservatives, God is evidently so feeble and ephemeral an entity that he cannot prosper unless good Christians everywhere arrange to purge Darwin from the biology curriculum. But, again, this can hardly be what IDIOT’s aficionados have in mind.

I recently had the opportunity to review my thinking on the Darwin Wars when the editor of the “Amazon Shorts” program invited me to contribute an original piece of fiction to that sector of cyberspace. I immediately realized that I wanted to attempt another thought-experiment similar to my earlier “Spelling God with the Wrong Blocks.” You can read the result, “The Second Coming of Charles Darwin,” by tuning in the URL listed below. It will cost you all of forty-nine cents. If you’re not completely happy with this story, I shall cheerfully refund your money to the Red Cross.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000A0F6KY/002-0707842-8925666?v=glance&n=551440&n=13993911&s=books&v=glance

As I set about devising the plot of “The Second Coming of Charles Darwin,” it occurred to me that perhaps Darwin distresses people so profoundly because he didn’t simply stumble into an implicit argument against theism. No, he in fact replaced theism — replaced it with a construct far more beautiful and majestic than any extant account of the Supreme Being outside of the Book of Job, a construct that invites us to see the whole of life, from the aphid to the astronomer, the paramecium to the priest, as interconnected: not in some fey, sentimental, New Agey way, but literally interconnected, materially interconnected, across the eons and back to the Precambrian ooze or the primordial sea-vents or the Edenic clay-pits or wherever it all began. An astonishing construct, a mind-boggling construct, a construct of which Jehovah is understandably and insanely jealous.
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Feb. 8th, 2005 @ 10:55 pm Volume 1, Number 3
LYING TO CHILDREN

One of my favorite books on evolutionary theory is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. I would rank Dennett’s achievement with Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker and the various Stephen Jay Gould collections — though Dennett has problems with Gould, and I imagine the sentiment was reciprocated while Professor Gould was alive. Tufts versus Harvard.

Near the end of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett gives us a startling paragraph (page 515): “Save the Baptists? Yes, of course, but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world ... Some recent writers recommend a policy in which parents would be able to ‘opt out’ of materials they didn’t want their children taught. Should evolution be taught in the schools? Should arithmetic be taught? Should history? Misinforming a child is a terrible offense.”

Dennett’s words came to mind recently when a vote by the School Board of Dover — a small Pennsylvania town about a two-hour drive from my house — made national headlines. The Board in its wisdom decided that science teachers must hereafter present “intelligent design theory” as a valid and vigorous alternative to Darwin’s account of life on earth. On January 16, 2005, Dover High School administrators read a four paragraph mandated statement to students at the start of their biology classes. The second paragraph comprises the following ill-ordered sentences:

“Because Darwin’s theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.”

I find this paragraph incoherent at best. “Gaps ... exist for which there is no evidence” is simply bad writing. A gap is ipso facto something for which evidence exists (namely, human observation of the void in question). Would the Board tell Dover’s high school students, “Alligators exist for which there is no evidence”? Perhaps they would. I assume the Board meant to say, “Gaps exist that the theory cannot explain.”

The first three sentences were evidently composed in the hopes that from now on, whenever the term “scientific theory” reaches a student’s ear, he or she will hear “mere theory” — that is, a simple and perhaps even hazy conjecture (which is not how scientists employ the term “theory”). But then, bang, along comes a walloping non sequitur, sentence number four, in which “a theory” suddenly becomes a robust, satisfying, and noble thing indeed.

What is the poor student to make of this self-contradictory paragraph? Is this what passes for public education in Dover, Pennsylvania? Deliberately misinforming a child is a terrible offense, and willfully confusing him or her isn’t much better.

The Dover School Board’s third paragraph is equally unenlightening:

“Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.”

So what exactly is “intelligent design” (or, to give the argument its full name, Intelligent Design Implicit Onto-Theology)? I would argue that intelligent design is “an explanation of the origin of life” the way that Poseidon is an explanation of the origin of tsunamis. Like the Poseidon hypothesis, IDIOT cannot be falsified, cannot be tested, makes no predictions, and begs every single scientific question it raises. If our planet’s biosphere was designed by the Martians, or Jesus Christ, or Cronus on his throne, or a mediocre graduate student doing a Ph.D. experiment on Altair-4, then who the hell designed them? There is no way to ponder such mysteries without leaving the realm of science entirely — a perfectly reasonable thing to do, except in certain contexts, such as a high school biology classroom.


BEHE'S DISINGENUOUS IDEOLOGY

Monday’s New York Times included a piece by Lehigh University biologist Michael J. Behe, our culture’s most conspicuous exponent of intelligent design theory. Behe’s article is a masterpiece of obfuscation, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who wishes to understand the depths of disingenuousness to which an otherwise honorable man will descend in the name of defeating Darwinism. (Check out the op-ed page for February 7, 2005.)

Behe's religious views are hardly a secret, and the God hypothesis is implicit in every page of his monumentally unimpressive book, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. But, of course, Behe knows better than to announce his theism up front, hence his opening gambit in the Times: “The theory of intelligent design is not a religiously based idea, even though devout people opposed to the teaching of evolution cite it in their arguments.”

The theory of intelligent design is manifestly a “religiously based idea.” What it is not is a theory.

When it comes to argument by false analogy, Behe has few equals. “Unintelligent physical forces like plate tectonics and erosion seem quite sufficient to account for the origin of the Rocky Mountains. Yet they are not enough to explain Mount Rushmore.” Note the rhetorical sleight-of-hand by which Behe moves from the uncontroversial idea that Mount Rushmore was carved by human beings to an ostensibly iron-clad conclusion that the biosphere was consciously contrived by a higher power.

But of course living creatures are not remotely like Mount Rushmore, a work of art that, with all due respect to Gutzon Borglum, I can take or leave. Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and other biologists have exhaustively documented the ways in which hundreds of species, our own included, are actually pretty miserably designed, bursting with appalling inefficiencies, functionless redundancies, weird improvisations, and endlessly fascinating instances of evolutionary opportunism.

To give Behe his due, he is apparently willing to allow that something like natural selection may have occurred after the Christian God — whoops — after the Intelligent Designer assembled those organic molecules, programmed them to bring forth complex forms, and plopped them down on our planet. But the fact remains that Behe is essentially in the same position as those 19th-century physicists who realized that Newtonian mechanics could not fully account for the perihelion shift of the planet Mercury. To their everlasting credit, neither the physics community nor the clerics of the day appealed to an Intelligent Clockwinder as the only plausible way out of the difficulty. Instead they remained true to their respective callings, and eventually one of best and brightest of our species, Albert Einstein, devised a paradigm — the general theory of relativity — that seems to have resolved the discrepancy.

With its overwhelming scope and exquisite subtlety, the theory of natural selection is, to say the least, difficult to grasp. I’m not really sure I can do it. Evidently the human mind is poorly equipped for simultaneously holding all the various material and nonmaterial forces in its grasp: the scale of geological time, the algorithms of biological reproduction, the myriad selective pressures, the often complex logic of the fit between an organism and its ecological niche — not to mention the unimaginable quantities of death and copulation that lie at the heart of the theory. (Could it be that Americans’ traditional discomfort with oblivion and orgasms partially explains our native detestation of Darwin?) But just because you and I and Michael J. Behe have difficulty wrapping our intellects around Darwin’s dangerous idea, that does not, in my view, give us the right to lie to our children.


THE LATEST NEWS

I recently had the pleasure of chatting in cyberspace with Frank Herbert’s grandson, Byron Merritt. You can check out the interview at these coordinates:

http://www.fwomp.com/int-jamesmorrow.htm

The J.R.R. Tolkien online secondary school curriculum I wrote with my wife Kathy still appears on the Houghton Mifflin website:

http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/features/lordoftheringstrilogy/lessons/

The conversation between James Morrow and Brett Alexander Savory still resides in this sector of the digital galaxy:

http://www.chizine.com/james_morrow_interview.htm
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