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Superstitions Kill: An Analysis of Witch Hunts in Europe During 1480-1700 (2005) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

Superstitions Kill: An Analysis of Witch Hunts in Europe During 1480-1700 (2005) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 28, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2005 and published on in six parts on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 21,500 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 28, 2014


The Factors, Motivations, and Superstitions Behind Witch Hunts


The persecution of “witches” in Europe was a horrid practice during a time when the modern values of toleration, reason, due process, and gender equality were far more seldom manifested than today.

When examining the causes of the witch craze from 1480 to 1700, consideration must be given to those attitudinal conditions which, in later eras of European history, were far less prominent. Among these were the expectation of religious orthodoxy and behavioral uniformity, the lack of restraints on politicians’ desires to thrive at the expense of their subjects and competitors, and a widespread distrust of women and the aged.

During the Pre-Enlightenment era, the ideas of individual intellectual and religious freedom were largely anathema to mainstream thought, and opposed by a both a Catholic church striving to re-assert its temporal authority and the leaders of the Protestant Reformation attempting to aggressively gain control over mass followings.

Pope Innocent VIII wrote “The Witch Bull” in 1484, during the late Renaissance, when the Catholic Church was infamous for its pomp, love of worldly wealth, political scheming, and economic corruption. Part of the motive for this edict may have been the restoration of the Church’s prestige in the eyes of many fervent Christians, who held great disappointment and frustration at the Church’s perceived departure from spiritual matters.

By embarking the Church on a quest to purge spiritually “tainted” individuals, the Pope might have hoped to restore the image of his organization’s intense religiosity, while the Church’s political and worldly authority only increased. Indeed, the Holy Inquisition, which was just beginning to arise during this time, was greatly empowered by The Witch Bull to spread its physical power to all places where suspicions of witchcraft were present, effectively giving the Church the doctrinal means to implement a near-absolute ideological stranglehold over the Catholic world.

The tremendous success of both the Catholics and the Protestants at using the fear of witches to entrench their domination over the masses could only have been made possible by the masses’ tremendous susceptibility to such irrational superstition. A diary from a young Protestant boy illustrates a child’s fear of supernatural terrors, such as the devils that perpetually tormented his mind. Children, not yet having had adequate exposure to the workings of reality, are even today often pervaded by fears of monsters and other bizarre harms emerging from the unknown, but this boy lived in an age when the adults did not discredit such worries.

Indeed, because one church or another exerted a monolithic control over people’s intellectual lives, an individual would grow up in an environment where his childhood fears would only be further fed and fueled by the messages emanating from the religious orthodoxy. Entire generations would grow up in this manner, convinced since their earliest days that any individual oddity, coincidence, or uncommon occurrence was a sign of supernatural evil. Such masses were willing audiences to whatever ideological craze churches would concoct to extend their authority over individuals’ lives.

Anti-Female Prejudices Displayed in The Malleus Maleficarum


The 1486 book, The Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) was among the most violently prejudiced writings in history; it claimed the inferiority of women to males in every respect and blamed on this inferiority women’s alleged susceptibility to witchcraft. This book’s teachings inspired a bloody series of witch hunts that ravaged Europe for the next two centuries.

According to Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in The Malleus Maleficarum, female susceptibility to superstition and witchcraft has among its causes women’s excessive credulity. The devil prefers to target the more credulous since “the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them” (1). Kramer and Sprenger thus imply that the devil seeks to destroy religious integrity in the largest number of souls, and that his odds of success at this are greatest when targeting women. Women’s impressionability, defined by Kramer and Sprenger as the readiness “to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit” (1), renders their souls wide open to the devil’s manipulations.

Moreover, according to Kramer and Sprenger, women’s general inability to keep a secret, illustrated by their “slippery tongues” (1), is claimed to be a cause for the frequent public exposure of their witchcraft. Continuing their presentation, Kramer and Sprenger assert that women are intellectually inferior to males, and in this respect analogous to children, devoid of the knowledge of such fine disciplines as philosophy, which could have shielded them from maleficent influences. Furthermore, women are portrayed as being more motivated by bodily lust than males, and are, throughout the text, characterized as having insatiable carnal demands. This is derived from the inherent nature of woman, who obtained this defect as a result of her formation from an improperly bent rib.

Kramer and Sprenger claim that “The Malleus Maleficarum portrays the vices of deviousness and envy as pervasive in women. Kramer and Sprenger contend that women’s displays of emotion are insincere, since “[w]hen a woman weeps, she labours to deceive a man” (2). Women’s constant conniving and treachery are due to the jealousy that even the best women exhibit toward both their female counterparts and males. Even among the holy women of the Bible, Kramer and Sprenger find numerous examples of this trend, and assert that its harm will be magnified even further if it is directed against males. Female witchcraft, then, is the material manifestation, by means of manipulation and treachery, of the rampant envy that women exhibit.

Though Kramer and Sprenger assert that women are susceptible to irrational superstition, it is they, the authors of The Malleus Maleficarum, who fell prey to the most disastrous of superstitions: superstitions that enabled the killing of thousands of innocent people.

Witch Hunts as a Form of Anti-Female Discrimination


The witch hunts that took place from 1480 to 1700 were in part facilitated by the negative perceptions of women during the time period of their occurrence. Alan Macfarlane’s statistics reveal that females typically comprised about 80% of the total amount of “witches” executed, implying that, for every male victim, four females lost their lives.

Writing The Hammer of Witches (Malleus Maleficarum),the monks Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger entrenched this misogynist bend into official witch-hunting doctrine. Kramer and Sprenger describe a woman as inherently more fallible than her male counterpart, and from her very nature as one originating from an improperly bent rib, prone to evil. However, Kramer and Sprenger also write that, though women are susceptible to evil influences, they can also be “very good” when they use their impressionable qualities in a certain manner.

Given the heavily patriarchal nature of their time period, the monks may have been suggesting that the proper place of a woman is to obey male influences, so that her imperfections may be compensated for by the males’ lack of such fallibilities. The threat of being branded a witch more readily than a male would be might have served as a deterrent for women from defying the commonplace expectations imposed on them by the social and religious paradigms surrounding them.

Women like Alice Prabury, who diverged from the expected role of a woman as a mundane housekeeper and instead obtained uncommon skills to cure people and animals of diseases, were targets for persecution. The Churchwardens of Gloucestershire may have filed their accusation of witchcraft against Prabury due to their disapproval of the excessive independence that the woman manifested, as exemplified in her refusal to tell others, including the representatives of the dominant paradigm, the unique means by which she went about to performing work.

Additionally, women, like Walpurga Hausmannin, who exercised initiative in romantic relationships, were suspect of being in league with the Devil. In the patriarchal society of that age, romantic advances by females were considered highly improper and threatening to the social order. Perhaps Hausmannin’s death was a result of the dominant paradigm’s attempt to criminalize such behavior under the guise of witchcraft, but with the true purpose of enforcing male domination in relationships.

The creative, individualistic, and independent women were most often the targets of the two-century-long spree of witch hunts. Such persecution unfortunately destroyed many talented individuals who could have lived fulfilling lives and made tremendous advances in the arts and sciences.

How Martin Luther and John Calvin Conducted Witch Hunts and Persecuted Dissenters


The early 16th-century Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin were not enlightened, forward-thinking individuals. They were brutal, superstitious, intolerant, and repressive individuals who exploited popular stereotypes of “witches” in order to persecute those who disagreed with their views.

The Protestants’ use of the witch craze to enforce religious orthodoxy was no less dramatic than that of the Catholics. One of Martin Luther’s tools for attracting a mass following to his breakaway movement from the Catholic Church was the use of powerful emotional imagery. Just as he compared Rome to Babylon and the Pope to the Antichrist following his rejection of papal authority during the Leipzig debate in 1519, Luther was ready to brand eccentric or ideologically divergent individuals as “the Devil’s whores.”

Luther, in his 1522 sermon, charged the “witches” with a litany of supernatural behaviors, including transformation into different animals, accusations which, to the rationally thinking mind, would be ludicrous indeed. This further demonstrates that Luther’s motive for breaking away from the Catholic Church was not to defend freedom of individual thought, but to establish a religious orthodoxy of his own.

Luther, in addition to his intense anti-Semitism, strived to encourage the adoption of his version of Protestantism as the state-sponsored religion of numerous German principalities, at the expense of the religious freedoms of those principalities’ citizens. His intolerance extended even to the Zwinglians in Switzerland, with whom he exhibited only a minor disagreement over transubstantiation. Luther would undoubtedly have been eager to use the fear of witches as yet another weapon to direct mass hostility against those whose views diverged with his own.

John Calvin’s description of witches in the Institutes of the Christian Religion even more transparently revealed his true motives of combating dissension from his version of Protestantism. Calvin draws, from his passage on witchcraft, the conclusion that “we have to wage war against an infinite number of enemies.” Calvin might have included under this category anyone who did not conform to the dicta of his strict church government in Geneva.

Calvin’s policy was to stringently oversee people’s private lives, church attendance, and intellectual expression, and ensure that nothing they said or did would displease God. It should therefore come as no surprise that Geneva experienced a far larger number of witch hunts than most other major European cities. H.C. Erik Midelfort’s statistics show Geneva as having experienced 95 cases of witch persecution over 125 years, almost two and a half times more than had occurred in the entire Department of the Nord in France during 137 years.

Calvin was frank about his use of the witch craze to enforce the power of his own theocratic order, stating in the Institutes that he had brought up the entire issue “in order that we may be aroused and exhorted,” i.e., rallied behind Calvin’s religious movement.

The Political Motives Behind Witch Hunts


Aside from religious motives, the witch hunts that took place from 1480 to 1700 were made possible by the time period’s lack of restraint for political practices that provided only a flimsy cover for outright theft of property and politicians’ wanton attempts to destroy both their subjects and each other.

The personal avarice of many politicians of the time period impelled them to seek to thrive at the expense of others’ lives and suffering. The canon Linden, in his account of the persecutions in Trier, Germany in 1592, describes many of the city’s prominent magistrates as victims of the witch hunts, while others, including numerous political officers and the men hired by them, grew wealthy off the confiscated possessions of victims.

Indeed, Linden’s description suggests that witchcraft was “mass produced” and that the furnishing of accusations was a profitable industry for those on the receiving end of the property. The vehemence of a large segment of the population in supporting the witch executions might have been reinforced by the material gains those people would expect to obtain from them, gains that Linden personally witnessed when observing such men as the executioners.

Linden, himself a canon, saw many of his fellow canons lose their lives in the witch-hunting frenzy, and evidently considered himself at risk as well. His critical attitude toward the persecutions further illustrates that the witch hunts were an attempt of one class of people to prosper at the expense of others, and recognized as such by their victims.

Political rivalries, too, were motives for accusations of witchcraft. Among the victims of such ploys was Mayor Johannes Junius, who, though entirely innocent, was confronted with a trial whose proceedings were clearly not aimed toward an objective determination of guilt or innocence, but rather at causing Junius to “confess something, whether it be true or not.” The trial was rigged against Junius, and there was to be no possible outcome but his death. Such a case could not have existed had Junius not possessed rivals who wanted him eliminated at all costs. A vacancy in the post of mayor could, after all, assist someone’s political ambitions, either to occupy the position or place into it a man acceptable to some religious or political faction with the means to carry out witch hunts.

Roger North’s account also shows that witch hunts were often approved of by officials who themselves feared persecution by the masses. North, the brother of a chief justice, clearly sympathizes with those judges who were intimidated by mass fervor into condemning individuals accused of witchcraft, lest the judges themselves became targets of mass rage.

Even though most judges and officials, especially in the late seventeenth century, toward the end of the witch-hunting period, were sufficiently educated and rational to recognize the belief in witchcraft to be an “impious vulgar opinion,” those who stood on their principles could often find their careers, reputations, and even lives at risk.

Hatred of the Elderly as a Motivation for Witch Hunts


The era of witch hunts (1480-1700) exhibited a noticeably smaller life expectancy than the modern age, and living until an age even as advanced as sixty was extremely rare. Older individuals were seen as abnormal and thus, to the conformist mindset prevalent at the time, a threat.

W. Fulbecke expressed this view in writing, claiming that the bodies of the old become increasingly decayed and impure, and thus susceptible to corruption and evil. Having no rational, scientific explanation for the aging process, Fulbecke suggests that people senesce because they are “by the Devil whetted for such a purpose.”

The scientific ignorance of the witch-hunting period thus provided fuel for the creation of severely negative stereotypes on the basis of which aged individuals were persecuted. H.C. Erik Midelfort’s statistics show that the median age of accused witches across Europe was most frequently sixty, and at least fifty-five.

Given a general state of physical incapacitation among the elderly of the pre-modern era due to the lack of adequate medical knowledge, another reason for the frequent witch hunts against the senile may have been the inability of many of the latter to support themselves independently.

An English householder, as described by Thomas Ady, had a reputation for accusing of witchcraft those elderly beggars who had come to his door asking for assistance. The householder considered it his religious duty to give his aid to the poor, and would ask God’s forgiveness for denying it to an elderly woman, but would subsequently accuse the same woman of witchcraft. Perhaps, by the invention of such charges, the householder attempted to eliminate those elderly beggars whom he would otherwise have been compelled to support out of his Christian principles, likely to the detriment of his own economic well-being.

But even in such a time, more scientifically oriented individuals, such as the physician Johan Wier, had attempted to “fight with natural reason” the cruelties inflicted upon the aged. Wier refers to commonsense observations regarding the harmlessness of old individuals and the natural origins of the diseases which often clouded their reasoning.

Wier’s ideas were progressive for his time, and were used to argue for the humane treatment of the elderly. Nevertheless, the pervasive dominance of religious dogma over rational thought during his era left a mark even on Wier, who attributes witches’ false confessions to devilish influence, as opposed to the physical, this-worldly threats of torture they were faced with.

As the Enlightenment swept through the Western world during the early 18th century, the attitudinal conditions facilitating the persecution of witches were steadily moderated or eliminated. Religious orthodoxy gave way to greater toleration for a variety of faiths, and even strains of thought such as deism and atheism, whose advocates would not be accused of witchcraft.

The ideas of universal natural rights of individuals to life, liberty, and property made due process a legal priority and rendered it tremendously difficult for politicians to employ transparently artificial charges to wantonly expropriate the population or eliminate their competitors. The belief in the limitless potential of the rational faculties of all individuals, male or female, young or old, rendered misogyny and hatred of the elderly far less prevalent than previously. Along with the ideas that fostered it, witchcraft was relegated to the dustbin of history.

How Dictators Use Religion as a Means of Oppression in Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies” (2002) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

How Dictators Use Religion as a Means of Oppression in Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies” (2002) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 26, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2002 and published  on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007, where it earned over 2,300 page views.  I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 26, 2014


In Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, the sisters Minerva and Patria observe two portraits of Jesus and the Dominican dictator Trujillo, side by side, and compare them (53). Patria knows of the various atrocities committed by Trujillo against her friends, acquaintances, and countrymen, and she is aware of the constant terror and destruction that the government wreaks upon her people, but refuses to apply this knowledge to her own existence.

Psychologically, Patria is erecting a mental barrier against the suffering through a credulous faith in the “virtues” of a passive God and a devastating dictator. She refuses to acknowledge the evil around her as real and thereby feigns an illusion of security for herself. These, after all, were the icons she had been groomed since childhood to submit to and not question.

Minerva flies in the face of the dominant and repressive paradigm, which urges one to sacrifice one’s self-interest to Trujillo and then some to God. The culture in the Dominican Republic is replete with institutional mental barriers, even as superficial as the artistic enhancements of Trujillo’s portrait, which serve to reinforce Patria’s mindset of willful separation from the truth.

Deliberations concerning the nature of a deity lead one to the insight that almost all of today’s major religions had been invented during antiquity, when (with few exceptions) the world was governed by fragmented tribal monarchies, and a God was fashioned in the image of the only ruler a people possessed as a model, a dictator.

The resemblances between dictatorship and non-modernized versions of the major religions are astounding in this novel and in real life, as one learns of the repressive theocracies in the Middle East. Both teach, overtly in many cases, the cult of submission, of subordination to the rule of a capricious autocrat; be he located in a palace or in heaven. The source of the dictates is considered more significant than their actual validity and benefit, and thus Patria, despite learning of the horrors of Trujillo and becoming disillusioned with Jesus and the Catholic faith is unable to fully relinquish both as she had fallen prey to the subservient paradigm in a manner that Minerva had not.

The author, however, conveys a certain philosophical recognition that Patria obtained despite her block, which is illustrated by the last sentence, “And the two faces had merged!”, which implies the congruence of all forms of submission and self-abnegation, no matter how divergent or incompatible they may seem on the surface.


A Brief History of Western Liberalism – Article by Kyrel Zantonavitch

A Brief History of Western Liberalism – Article by Kyrel Zantonavitch

The New Renaissance Hat
Kyrel Zantonavitch
June 1, 2013

This is a brief history of the philosophy and culture of liberalism. It describes a life-style and civilization which lifts human beings far above that of animals, chimpanzees, hominids, and even tribalist hunter-gatherers. Liberalism features man at his best. Liberals are clear-thinking and rational men: natural, sound, healthy, happy, uplifted, and heroic.

Liberalism is a fundamental category of philosophy and life-style – something broad and general. It constitutes a definitive concept – beyond which one cannot venture or improve – like life, happiness, greatness, transcendence, virtue, beauty, pleasure, thought, reality, existence, and the universe. Liberalism’s subsidiary concepts are also ultimate and final: rationality, egoism, and liberty.

In the story of mankind, first come bonobos, then semi-human Homo habilis, then primitive man Homo erectus, then highly advanced Neanderthals, then truly intelligent and impressive Cro-Magnons – who used their 100 IQs to exterminate their brutish competitors, invent sophisticated arrow technology, and make art such as those Venus statues and cave paintings.

By 9000 BC the last Ice Age ended, and humans immediately converted from hunter-gatherers to rancher-farmers. After domesticating multitudinous plants and animals, by 3300 BC human beings further cultivated them with irrigation on their new private property, backed by their revolutionary social institution called government. By 1700 BC men had well-established written laws, well-developed literature and art, easy personal transportation using horses, and elaborate international trade using sophisticated great ships.

All of this constituted impressive advances in humans’ quality of life; but none of it constituted philosophical or cultural liberalism.

Finally, by about 600 BC, the ancient Greeks created the indescribably magnificent phenomenon of Western liberalism. They invented rationality or “Greek reason” or syllogistic logic – or pure thought or epistemology. This is usually described as “the discovery of science and philosophy.”

But along with the stunning and wondrous epistemology of reason – naturally and inevitably and inherently – came the ethics of individualism, and the politics of freedom.

All of this can be fairly, accurately, and usefully denominated as the thought-system and life-style of Western liberalism – of liberal philosophy and culture, especially as exemplified by Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno the Stoic. These three theorists, ironically, were labelled by their intellectual opponents as “dogmatic.” This was not because these scientifically minded open debaters claimed to know everything based on faith, but because they claimed to know anything at all based on evidence and analysis.

By the 100s BC in Greece, the general ideology of liberalism was well-established in the middle and upper classes. Then the Romans conquered the Greeks and within a century made liberalism their own. They even advanced the noble ideas and ideals a bit, with such thinkers as Cicero, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, and Aurelius.

But skepticism of reason ascended rapidly by the 200s AD, and with it came the decline of the greatest country in human history. The new phenomenon of monotheism began to dominate in the 300s AD, especially Christianity or “Plato for the masses.” By the middle of the 400s, the philosophy and culture of liberalism were dead, and so was Rome. A long, terrible Dark Age ensued.

This irrational, illiberal nightmare of Western civilization lasted for a millennium. The wretched and depraved philosophy of Jesus ruined everything.

But a bit of reason and hope came back into the world in the 1100s of northwest Europe with the mini-Renaissance. High-quality Greek thinkers were gradually reintroduced. Then came the 1300s and the Italian Renaissance.

By the 1500s a whole Europe-wide Renaissance began with France’s conquest of northern Italy. The French brought their reborn art and philosophy to everyone in the West. The beautiful general philosophy of liberalism ascended still higher while the ghastly evils of fundamentalist skepticism, Platonism, monotheism, and Christianity declined. The classical liberal era was brought about by radical and heroic innovators like Francis Bacon, John Locke, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson.

The late 1700s Enlightenment and Age of Reason in Britain, France, Holland, and America featured liberalism at its height. But it was gradually and massively undermined by the irrational, nonsensical philosophers Bishop Berkeley, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Hegel.

During and after the 1790s the French Revolution went astray and embraced ideological dogmatism, and self-sacrifice to the cause. It also converted itself into an early version of modern communism; as well as the false, evil, and illiberal ideologies of right-wing conservatism and left-wing progressivism. In the art world this was manifested by the slightly but definitely irrational Romantic movement of 1800-1850. Paintings started to turn ugly again.

Socialism and communism fairly quickly went into high gear after Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto of 1848. Religion also somewhat revived in the late 1800s. These two monstrous ideologies backed the moral ideal of self-destruction, or the “Judeo-Christian ethic,” or, even better, the “religio-socialist ethic.” The fin de siècle of the 1890s was the giddy, despairing, hopeless, lost end of a noble era in the West – a dynamic, heroic, rational, liberal era.

A practical, real-world, irrational, illiberal dystopia was achieved in the mid-1900s with Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Later in the 1900s there were Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Ayatollah Khomeini, and countless other despots. Illiberalism reached a hellish trough around 1985.

Then came Ronald Reagan in America, Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia, and Deng Xiaoping in China. These four political semi-revolutionaries, in four leading nations, used their governments to change world culture in a liberal direction.

These liberal leaders emerged on the world scene because theory always precedes practice, and the theory of liberalism began to rise again – at least intellectually, and in certain recherché circles – around the early 1900s. It began anew with Austrian economic thinkers like Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and Friedrich Hayek. In addition to the dry, mechanical realm of economics, these three addressed the fields of politics and sociology – and even ethics and epistemology. They filled in many of the gaps, and corrected many of the weaknesses and failures, of Locke, Smith, and company.

The Austrians also attacked the communism, socialism, and progressivism of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, among others. And they taught the fiery intellectual novelist Ayn Rand.

Rand converted from fiction to philosophy from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. She was by far the most liberal thinker in the history of man. She created the philosophy of Objectivism. Ayn Rand advanced human knowledge about as much as Bacon, Locke, Voltaire, Smith, and Jefferson combined.

Sadly, however, Rand undercut her liberal ideology with a heavy atmosphere and subtext of cultism and religiosity in her propaganda movement. This was understandable, considering how revolutionary and hated her philosophy was, but hardly rational or legitimate.

However, Rand died in 1982, and a highly rational and non-religious organization, organized around her discoveries, emerged in 1989. This brought the world Objectivism as a thought-system, not a belief-system; and Objectivism as a rational, benevolent, effective philosophy – not an irrational, malicious, weird cult.

There are currently three separate but related avant-garde liberal ideological movements: Austrian economics, libertarian politics, and Objectivist philosophy. All three are tiny but, based on historical intellectual standards, seemingly growing solidly.

Pure liberalism – a pure, clean, complete comprehension that reason was 100% right in epistemology, individualism was 100% right in ethics, and freedom was 100% right in politics – began in the early 21st century. Randroid illiberalism began to die out. A New Enlightenment is about to begin.

Kyrel Zantonavitch is the founder of The Liberal Institute  ( and a writer for Rebirth of Reason ( He can be contacted at

4 in 5 of Americans Don’t Think Death Exists? – Article by Franco Cortese

4 in 5 of Americans Don’t Think Death Exists? – Article by Franco Cortese

The New Renaissance Hat
Franco Cortese
May 4, 2013

“Our hope of immortality does not come from any religions, but nearly all religions come from that hope.” ~ Robert Green Ingersoll

Recent polls indicate that 80% of Americans and over 50% of global citizens believe in an afterlife. I argue that conceptions of death which include or allow for the possibility of an afterlife are not only sufficiently different from conceptions of death devoid of an afterlife as to necessitate that they be given their own term and separate designation, but that such afterlife-inclusive notions of death constitute the very antithesis of afterlife-devoid conceptions of death! Not only are they sufficiently different as to warrant their own separate designations, but afterlife-inclusive conceptions of death miss the very point of death – its sole defining attribute or categorical qualifier as such. The defining characteristic is not its specific details (e.g.,  whether physical death counts as death if the mind isn’t physical, as in substance dualism); its defining characteristic is the absence of life and subjectivity. Belief in an afterlife is not only categorically dissimilar but actually antithetical to conceptions of death precluding an afterlife. Thus to believe in heaven is to deny the existence of death!

The fact that their belief involves metaphysical, rather than physical, continuation isn’t a valid counter-argument. To argue via mind-body dualism that the mind is metaphysical, and thus will continue on in a metaphysical realm (i.e. heaven), in this specific case makes no difference. Despite the mind not being physical in such an argument, its relation to the metaphysical realm is the same as the relation of physical objects to the physical realm. It operates according to the “rules” and “causal laws” of the metaphysical realm, and so for all effective purposes can be considered physical in relation thereto, in the same sense that physical objects can be considered physical in relation to physical reality.

The impact of this categorical confusion extends beyond desire for semantic precision. If we hope to convince the larger public of radical life extension’s desirability, we need to first convince them that death exists. If one believes that one’s mind will continue on after physical death, then the potential attraction of physical immortality becomes negligible if not null. Why bother expending effort to attain immortality if it is inherent in the laws of the universe? It becomes a matter of not life or death but of convenience. This is a major problem: if the statistics mentioned can be trusted, then over half of the world population, and over 4/5ths of the USA, lack even the potential to see the attraction and advantage of life extension!

Widespread public awareness of and desire for radical longevity are important, because they are our best tools for achieving it. One promoter is more effective – that is, has more of an impact on how soon indefinite longevity is realized – than one researcher working on life extension. One promoter can get his or her message to scores of people per day. Conversely, many researchers have little say on what they want to work on, or the scope and uses for what they work on. One must be conservative to get research grants, and the research directions taken in any science discipline are more influenced by public opinion than the opinion of individual researchers. We can get more traction by influencing public opinion, per unit of time or effort (damn these unquantifiable metrics!), than with pragmatic research. If we get widespread support, then funding for research will come.

The preponderance of atheists in the Transhumanist community is not a coincidence. Only through godlessness can each become his own god – in which case god-as-superior-being becomes meaningless, and god-as-control-of-own-fate, god-as-self-empowerment and god-as-self-legitimation, self-signification, and self-dignification are the only valid definitions for such a term that remain. Autotheism encompasses atheism because it requires it (with the possible exception of co-creator theologies). Atheism is still to be valorized and commended in my opinion, for it exemplifies the resolute acceptance of freedom and ultimate responsibility for what we are and are to become. To be an atheist un-paralyzed by fear is to take for granted the desirability of one’s own freedom and lawless godfullness. On the other hand, successful intersections of religious thinking and Transhumanism do exist, as exemplified by the Mormon Transhumanist Association – whose success lies, I think, in its emphasis on co-creator theology (Mormons believe that it is Man’s responsibility to “grow up” into God – and if man and god are on equal footing, then where lie the dog, titan, and grandFather?). Thus while belief in heaven and, by consequence, all religions that include or allow for conceptions of an afterlife constitute a massive deterrent to the widespread popularity of immortalism, they also constitute, in utmost irony, some of its greatest potential legitimators due to their potential to evidence immortality as a deep-rooted human desire that transcends cultural distance and historical time.

Thus we should neither be precisely denouncing nor promoting religion, yet neither should we ignore it and simply let it be. Rather we should be a.) heralding religious adherents for their keen insight into the true values and desires of humanity, while b.) taking care to show them that life extension is nothing less than the modern embodiment of the very immortalist gestalt that they exemplified via conceptualizing an afterlife in the first place, and that belief in heaven held or maintained today goes against the very motivation and underlying utility that such a belief was trying to maintain and instill all along! By believing in heaven, they are going against all it was ever meant achieve (the temporary satisfaction of our insatiable urge for life and escape from petty death) and all it was ever meant to constitute. This is not only the truest state of affairs, but the most advantageous as well. It allows us to at once ameliorate the problems caused by widespread belief in heaven, utilize the widespread and long-running belief in afterlife for the purpose of legitimizing immortalism to the wider and more conservative public, and show the long historical tradition of a belief in or longing for immortality to constitute perhaps the most deep-rooted human value, desire and ideal (in both terms of historical time and in terms of importance, or a measure of how much it shapes our values, desires, and ideals), while at the same time avoid irremediably insulting people who believe in an afterlife  – which is detrimental only insofar as it risks having them ignore our cause not from reasoned conclusion but rather from seasoned spite.

We should consider two options. The first is to convince them that contemporary belief in heaven must be laid down, because its contemporary utility actually works against the original utility of a belief in heaven, as described above. A second option, which I think is less favorable but may be met with less ideological opposition, is that physical immortality constitutes the new embodiment of heaven on earth. Religious institutions like the like the Roman Catholic Church have, through the Vatican in this case, reformed their doctrine on evolution. Might the eschatological occurrences in the Book of Relevation be interpreted as the culminating intersection of the realm of Heaven with the realm of Earth? Might we try and incite them to change their doctrine on the afterlife, removing all metaphysical connotations due to society’s increasing secularization and the growing popularity of scientific materialism (also called metaphysical or methodological naturalism)? The change in doctrine over evolution, which the Catholic Church did presumably due to the large popularity of belief in evolution and the Church’s desire not to alienate so large a demographic, may be a precedent. Thus we should consider suggesting that the Church reinterpret its vision of Heaven as a continuing physical realization of the perfect society on Earth.

We should be portraying every religious crusade and mission to spread the word of god as a pilgrimage to bring immortality to the world! If one thinks that a specific moral, metaphysical, or cosmological (i.e., religious) system is required to attain life after death, what else is the pilgrimage to spread god’s word but a quest to bring methodological means of immortality to humanity? Let us at once show believers in an afterlife why they are wrong, commend them for their insight into deep-rooted and historically extensive human values, beliefs, and eternal longings, and win them over to our side!

We have been hurling our rank rage at death and staunch demand for life at the unyielding heavens since before the recognized inception of culture! From the first dawn in Sumer and on, extending across the Abrahamic tradition to touch upon Hinduism and the Chinese Faith, from Egyptian religion (with its particularly strong emphasis on the afterlife) to Norse mythology and beyond. Even Buddhism, which is often considered more philosophy than religion for its lack of a dogmatic stance on cosmology and an afterlife, has its versions of eternal life. Reincarnation is just as much a validating force for our desire for immortality as belief in an afterlife is. Reincarnation holds that non-metaphysical, physically embodied immortality, through cyclic rebirth, is possible (and while metaphysics is involved, the belief nonetheless reifies the concept or corporeal rebirth). And indeed, even though reincarnated forms precede Nirvana and are still located within the “illusory” realm of Samsara, this only goes to further emphasize the predominance of physical forms of radical longevity, the desire for and belief in which both reincarnation and the Buddhist versions of “heaven” exemplify. According to the Anguttara Nikaya (a Buddhist text), there are several types of heaven in existence, all part of the physical realm, the inhabitants or “denizens” of which have varying degrees of longevity. The denizens of Cātummaharajan live 9,216,000,000 years; denizens of Nimmānarati live 2,284,000,000 years; denizens of Tāvatimsa live 36,000,000 years; denizens of Tusita live 576,000,000 years; and the denizens of Yāma live 1,444,000,000 years.

Our history overflows with humanity’s upheaved herald of heaven, our exaltation of the existential extra, our fiery strife towards continued life. The mythic and religious historical traditions constitute at once indefinite longevity’s greatest contemporary obstacle and its greatest historical legitimator.

“There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.” ~ Robert Green Ingersoll

Franco Cortese is an editor for, as well as one of its most frequent contributors.  He has also published articles and essays on Immortal Life and The Rational Argumentator. He contributed 4 essays and 7 debate responses to the digital anthology Human Destiny is to Eliminate Death: Essays, Rants and Arguments About Immortality.

Franco is an Advisor for Lifeboat Foundation (on its Futurists Board and its Life Extension Board) and contributes regularly to its blog.


  1. Belief of Americans in God, heaven and hell, 2011 (2011). Retrieved March 22, 2013 from
  2. Poll; nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in angels (2011). CBS News. Retrieved March 22, 2013 from
  3. Conan, N. (2010). Do You Believe In Miracles? Most Americans Do. In NPR News. Retrieved March 22, 2013 from
  4. Americans Describe Their Views About Life After Death (2003). The Barna Group. Retrieved March 22, 2013 from
  5. 43,941 adherent statistic citations: membership and geography data for 4,300+ religions, churches, tribes, etc. (2007). Retrieved March 22, 2013 from
How Will Religions Respond to Indefinite Life Extension? – Article by G. Stolyarov II

How Will Religions Respond to Indefinite Life Extension? – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
March 25, 2013

I was asked, on a recent Immortal Life discussion/debate thread to address the question of whether religions would become obsolete in an era of indefinite human life extension.

This is another topic on which I created a video in early 2012 – “Religion and Indefinite Life Extension”.

To summarize, in my (atheistic) view, religions are generally not animating forces of societal change. Rather, they tend to be barometers of prevailing attitudes approximately one generation in the past. Often, religions get dragged along into making progress by intellectual developments outside religion – in the same way that, as a result of the 18th-century Enlightenment, various Christian denominations gradually transitioned away from providing Biblical justifications for slavery and toward denouncing slavery on Christian grounds. The impetus for this transformation was the rise of ideas of reason, individualism, and natural rights – not the doctrines of the Christian religion.

I suspect that there will be a broad spectrum of responses among various religious denominations and their followers to the prospect of indefinite life extension, once most people begin to see it as within their individual grasp. In Christianity, on the cutting edge will be those Christians who interpret the message of the resurrection (a literal resurrection in the flesh, according to actual Christian doctrine) to be compatible with transhumanist technologies. (We already see the beginnings of forward-thinking interpretations of religion with the Mormon Transhumanists.) On the other hand, the more staid, dogmatic, ossified religious denominations and sects will try to resist technological change vigorously, and will not be above attempting to hold the entire world’s progress back, merely to make their own creeds more convincing to their followers. Historically, religions have served two primary societal roles: (1) to form a justification for the existing social order and (2) to assuage people’s fears of death. The first role has atrophied over time in societies with religious freedom. The second role will also diminish as radical life extension in this world becomes a reality. Religions do evolve, though, and the interpretations of religion that ultimately prevail will (I hope) be the more peaceful, humane, and progress-friendly ones. At the same time, proportions of non-religious people in all populations will rise, as has been the trend already.

Reflections on Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” – Article by Edward W. Younkins

Reflections on Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” – Article by Edward W. Younkins

The New Renaissance Hat
Edward W. Younkins
February 18, 2013

This essay is not a review of Tom Hooper’s recently released film of the tremendously popular 1980s stage musical. However, the release of this film has given me the occasion to read and to reflect upon the original text of Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic, Les Misérables, a mosaic of social indictment, history, social philosophy, sentimentality, and spirituality.

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) is the great prose epic of the nineteenth century. Interweaving the social and spiritual threads of human life, the novel has been influential in making people desire a more just world. In Les Misérables the author condemns the unjust class-based social structure in nineteenth-century France for turning good people into criminals and beggars. He makes a case that crime and poverty can be eliminated through universal education, a criminal justice system that is flexible and focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and the more equal and humane treatment of women. Despite these broad recommendations, Hugo offered no practical solutions for reforming schools, the police, the courts, and the prisons. Les Misérables is a call for a wiser and nobler civilization. When it was released, it inspired a great deal of sympathy for hapless people oppressed by the state. It was also viewed as a celebration of revolution against tyranny.

Les Misérables is an epic novel focused on characters fighting against their exploitation and oppression. We see the injustices and disproportionate sentences piled upon Jean Valjean, the abuses suffered by Fantine, the brutality foisted on Cosette, the maltreatment of Enjolras  and his fellow revolutionaries, the plight of homeless children, and so on. All of these are examples of society’s injustice toward the lower classes. Through these stories, the novel exudes sympathy from the reader for the most wretched in society. The message is that, if men murder and steal and women fall from grace out of desperation, it is not their fault because they can find no honorable path to sustainability within the constructs of society. Rather, it is the fault of society and its creations, the state and the law. The state and its legal system are shown to be disinterested in the conditions of the dangerous classes. Society is thus culpable for dehumanizing the poor and for the crimes committed by the dregs of society. Les Misérables chronicles the corruption of police power, shows that society gives the convict no chance for redemption, and illustrates how France’s prison system not only continues, but also accelerates, the downward spiral of criminals. On the one hand, Valjean represents suppressed and destitute people whose place in life is determined by positive laws created by society’s elite in order to perpetuate their own superiority. On the other hand, Valjean illustrates that it is possible for men to rise above their circumstances.

Bishop Myriel is not a typical bishop or even a conventional Christian. He operates on his own innate sense of morality—it is not provided by Christianity. True morality is higher than, and separate from, any particular religion. Religions pass away but God remains. Myriel acts out of genuine sympathy and caring for the weak and the downtrodden. The Bishop has chosen a consistent belief system and life path and has dedicated his life to the active service of humanity by performing good deeds and engaging in heartfelt charity. Myriel believes that it is each man’s duty to perform good acts despite the fact that he may never know if the good acts he has performed for people will lead them to change their lives for the good. His religious humanism is far from orthodox Christianity.

When Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, forgives Jean Valjean for the theft of the silver, he offers him his initial opportunity for redemption. After this incident, Valjean has a choice to make. He could either continue on a path of crime or he could follow the example set by the Bishop. Having learned from his past, Valjean goes on to help the poor and the wretched. He adopts a new life, identity, and mentality. His new life includes honesty, love of neighbor, love of enemy, and love of God. Throughout his life, the Bishop is always with him as symbolized by the candlesticks. Myriel acts as a model and an inspiration for Valjean for the rest of his life. Throughout the novel, Valjean imitates more and more the Bishop’s asceticism, renunciation of worldly pleasures, and emphasis on sacrifice.

The moral duty to help the poor that Valjean accepts does not come from any social institutions. Rather, it flows from an expansive notion of God. Valjean illustrates that reason is inadequate in the resolution of moral problems. However, thought does direct Valjean toward the consideration of a dilemma, but at every decision point his emotions serve as the guide to right behavior. The hero performs good deeds intuitively as if he is acting in response to an inner voice. This Kantian perspective is that each person has an inner voice (perhaps his conscience), the source of moral laws, that tells him what his duties (i.e., moral obligations) are. The message seems to be that faith can transform one’s life. For Valjean, merely believing in God is not enough. He does not just contemplate the divine. Having learned from his experiences, he goes on to act to help people by his own initiative. For him, God, fulfillment, and salvation are attainable without the help of any organized religion.

Choice is difficult for Valjean who has a double nature—he has the experience of a convict and the instincts of a saint. He is a product of the social conditions that led him to steal a loaf of bread for his sister’s family and his prison time for punishment of that crime. Despite that, he still has the potential for good in him. Over and over he has to choose between doing what is right and doing what is safe and secure. At virtually every turn Valjean doubts and questions himself before making the morally correct choice. Les Misérables is very much a story of a man’s conscience at war with itself. After meeting the radiantly spiritual Bishop Myriel, Valjean’s life becomes a continuing struggle between his activated moral sense and his life-long criminal tendencies.

As Monsieur Madeleine, Jean Valjean redeems himself by becoming an innovative entrepreneur who creates a successful manufacturing business that brings about progress and prosperity for an entire region. This successful and kind person voluntarily does good deeds to help the less fortunate. Valjean’s actions exhibit justice to individual people rather than observance of the requirements of some abstract legal order. In addition to providing a reasonable standard of living for his employees, he builds schools and hospitals with his own money and distributes a large share of his wealth to the poor. Then, of course, he takes care of Fantine and rescues, raises, and protects Cosette. Ironically, the tolerant Valjean sympathizes with others but is unable to sympathize with himself. He understands that, although a person can repent of a crime, he can never escape the dishonor from committing it.

Inspector Javert cannot accept transgressions of the law regardless of circumstances. He represents the idea of punitive secular justice and is solely concerned with detection and retribution. Javert is absolutely committed to rules and to their administration. As a defender of France’s legal system, he is dedicated to following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. The well-intentioned, rigid, and dogmatic Javert wants to protect society from the criminal element and has total faith in the system of laws that he represents. Javert, the personification of public authority, contends that theft is wrong regardless of mitigating factors. Myriel, representing morality, would say that theft should be forgiven in the case when one acted to keep people from starving. Of course, our hero, Valjean, is caught between these two worldviews. Toward the end of the novel, Javert comes to understand that Valjean is concerned with a moral law higher than positive state law. At the end he empathizes with Valjean and comprehends that divine law has supremacy. Javert commits suicide because this realization disaffirms everything in his life that he believed in. The story of Javert provides a lesson about the limitations of the law of men. At the end of his life, Javert understands that Jean Valjean’s resistance to Javert’s tyranny is rooted in a belief in a higher power and law than the laws of men.

Enjolras and his diverse band of revolutionaries have a dream of a better world and do all they can to make that world a reality. They love man, tend to reject organized religions (including Christianity), and attempt to overturn the existing social order. Enjolras, the leader of the ABC (the Abaissé or the abased) Society wants to elevate men. The ABC’s 1832 revolt demanded legislation that would make possible liberty, justice, equal education, equal opportunity, and so on. Enjolras is a devoted, purposeful, political idealist who inspires others with his utopian vision of future progress. The other revolutionaries turn to Enjolras for the meanings behind their actions.

The novel teaches that individual men are dignified, honorable, and benevolent, but that social institutions are not, the result being the corruption of individual human beings. Like Rousseau and Turgot, Hugo subscribes to the idea of the natural goodness of man. All three believed in progress and in the perfectibility of man. They viewed progress as a basic law of the universe. Created by God, man has the capacity to become a civilized moral person if he is not corrupted by society. It is the corrupting influence of society that is responsible for the misconduct of the individual. If individuals are properly educated then they would not want to do evil.

Hugo maintains that society must be changed, but also that it is individuals who must first be transformed. It is these transformed individuals who can then foster the advancement of society. Accepting the Platonic idea that the individual’s soul is noble but the body is degraded, the author of Les Misérables teaches that one must achieve spiritual grandeur and a virtuous character in order to battle for justice in the here and now. Some individuals have the ability to triumph over evil both in themselves and in society and its institutions if they are willing to actively respond to the divine. In Les Misérables the life of each character influences others. It follows that, if each individual comprehends and accepts his influences on other persons, then society may become more just, caring, and merciful. Hugo contends that the requisite love of humanity can only come from faith in the divine. Faith in God is thus placed at the heart of this work. For Hugo, belief in God by acting people of good will is necessary to instill the social order with kindness and to make society more humane. Like Pascal, Hugo urges his readers to bet in favor of the existence of God and perhaps even in the possibility of an afterlife for the soul. In Les Misérables there are only a few exceptional virtuous individuals such as Myriel, Jean Valjean, and Enjolras, who can attain this level of existence. It follows that rehabilitation and elevation of the social order is most likely impossible given the above requirement and reality.

The novel’s ethic of social service emphasizes the alleviation of poverty. It portrays poor people being helped by the charitable works of a private individual (Valjean) rather than by government. Depicting the abject poverty of the poor, Les Misérables questions the morality of a political and economic system that permits children to be orphaned and homeless, mothers dying in the streets, and good men imprisoned for minor transgressions committed to feed their families. Hugo’s goal was to elicit his readers’ compassion and to stimulate their moral sensibilities by portraying how poverty brutalizes and dehumanizes people and how strict and relentless law enforcement creates the savages that it wants to eliminate. He wanted to educate the bourgeois and to awaken their consciousness and concern for France’s social problems. Hugo wanted people to take action to ease the burden of the less fortunate through good deeds and through changes in the social system. Les Misérables is Hugo’s plea for social change that vacillates between human and institutional reality and his hope for, and vision of, a better world.

In Les Misérables Hugo depicts that society is nothing more than the collection of individuals whose lives affect one another. For example, it is clear that Jean Valjean is concerned only with the individuals who make up society. In the novel, the circumstances and conduct of various seemingly randomly introduced characters converge and become intertwined with the struggles of Valjean. From the beginning of the story, there is a web of influence that builds as characters affect one another. Early on we see G______, a representative of the assembly during the French Revolution that dissolved the monarchy, humbling Bishop Myriel who recognizes his moral devotion to humanity and progress prompting the Bishop to redouble his own tenderness and love for the weak and the suffering. The network of interconnections grows as characters such as Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Javert, Fauchelevant, the Thénardiers, Marius, M. Gillenormand, Colonel Pontmery, Champathieu, Enjolras, and others appear. The author brings many of these characters together toward the climax of the novel.

Les Misérables illustrates that in every idea, and that for every person, perspective is partial and, therefore, insufficient by itself alone. Hugo shows that the complexity of life requires that no one philosophy, perspective, emotion, tradition, or behavior is capable of providing a total picture of what it means to be human. Like Kant, Hugo laments the fact that a person can only perceive and comprehend things through his own consciousness. According to Kant, man’s knowledge lacks validity because his consciousness possesses identity. For Kant, knowledge, to be valid, must not be processed in any way by consciousness. Hugo, like Kant, seems to be looking for knowledge that could be called absolute, unqualified, pure, or diaphanous. Kant maintains that identity, which itself is the essence of existence, invalidates consciousness. To know what is true, a man would have to abandon his own nature, which is an absurd impossibility. It follows that for both Hugo and Kant, reason must be forsaken and the emotions must be embraced, if one wants to deal with the fundamental concerns of existence. Hugo does seem to imply that knowledge can be enhanced by dialectically relating each perspective with opposing viewpoints. However, he realizes that, even with this dialectic interaction, one’s knowledge would still be limited. Even when many angles of perspective can be coordinated simultaneously, one’s understanding of a process, experience, or event is still limited.

Les Misérables is a fascinating maze of characters, emotions, ideas, paradoxes, and antitheses. The novel co-mingles ever-shifting and blurred shades of criminality, heroism, misery, resilience, good, evil, irony, pathos, poetry, free will, providence, action, the social, the spiritual, and much more. Hugo thus deals with the emotions, hopes, fears, passions, and doubts that are reflective of people’s common humanity. Les Misérables is a detailed reporting of men’s feelings and ideas that transcend time and place. It follows that this great novel is as relevant today as when it was published more than 150 years ago.

Dr. Edward W. Younkins is Professor of Accountancy at Wheeling Jesuit University. He is the author of Capitalism and Commerce: Conceptual Foundations of Free Enterprise [Lexington Books, 2002], Philosophers of Capitalism: Menger, Mises, Rand, and Beyond [Lexington Books, 2005] (See Mr. Stolyarov’s review of this book.), and Flourishing and Happiness in a Free Society: Toward a Synthesis of Aristotelianism, Austrian Economics, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism [Rowman & Littlefield Pub Incorporated, 2011] (See Mr. Stolyarov’s review of this book.). Many of Dr. Younkins’s essays can be found online at his web page at You can contact Dr. Younkins at

The Benefits of a Non-Religious Upbringing: A Firsthand Account – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The Benefits of a Non-Religious Upbringing: A Firsthand Account – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
January 26, 2013

This speech was delivered at the Second Annual International Day of Protest Against Hereditary Religion on January 20, 2013. You can see recordings of the speech and subsequent question-and-answer session here.

                Greetings, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for attending my speech. It is an honor to present at the Second Annual International Day of Protest Against Hereditary Religion. I will focus on the issue of hereditary religion from a perspective that, in my view, receives all too little attention. Unlike most individuals – and even unlike many atheists – I was not a victim of hereditary religion. I was raised in a non-religious household and have never been religious and was never seriously attracted to religion. I would like to provide my firsthand account of how the absence of religious indoctrination during my childhood enabled me to thrive as a thinker and maintain a high quality of life in adulthood. Through my presentation, I hope to provide a glimpse into the advantages that all children can and should have.

                I was born during the very late years of the Soviet Union, when Gorbachev’s perestroika was already well underway. While the Soviet regime was always atheistic in name, religious freedom was openly tolerated by that time. By the time I was four, Belarus had declared independence from the USSR, and the post-Soviet government no longer had a view of religion one way or the other. Most people who pretended to be nonreligious during earlier eras of the Soviet regime no longer needed to do so, and so there was a widespread apparent revival of Orthodox Christianity during my early years. My family, however, was among those who were truly non-religious, so they never needed to pretend. I was raised largely free from structured ideology, either religious or communist. There was no real emphasis on atheism placed during my childhood, either. I was not taught that religion or religious people were bad, though I was taught about the history of religious atrocities – such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Wars of Religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Much of what I learned on this subject was through my own reading of history books, of which there were plenty around the house, and to which I had unrestricted access. My family had no wish to be confrontational, so I was generally asked not to engage in any religion-oriented conversations in public. However, I do remember a situation where I and my grandfather – after whom I am named – were walking on the streets of Minsk and were hailed by Christians selling bibles and religious pamphlets. My grandfather replied firmly that he was an atheist and was not interested, though he did engage them in argument. It was around that time that he had read the Bible from cover to cover on his own, which seemed to reinforce his own atheism, as it does for many who actually delve into that text.

                As a child, I was not expected to think anything about religion, though I did anyway. I was, however, kept away from any sources of religious indoctrination. I want to share a few of the thoughts that went on in my mind at the time:

●             Prior to the scientific age, humans believed that gods inhabited high regions – mountains and the sky. However, humans climbed Mount Olympus and did not find the ancient Greek gods. Humans went into space and did not find heaven or any gods. Moreover, humans have discovered that the sky is not a solid platform or a place that can be inhabited generally; instead, it is a visual effect created by the fact that the Earth has an atmosphere. (I had memorized all the layers of the atmosphere, too.) Thus, it is impossible for gods to live there. Beyond the atmosphere is outer space, where no gods have been observed, either.

●             Prior to the 19th century, humans believed that only a god could have designed human life. However, Darwin’s theory of evolution demonstrated that it was possible for one species to evolve into another in an entirely natural process. (Yes, I knew about evolution – though in very simple terms – at that age.)

●             When I was asked by believers “If there is no God, then who created you?”, I would respond that my parents did. If the question was formulated somewhat differently – as in “What makes your existence possible?” – I would give an answer in terms of material causation – i.e., that I am made of cells, and cells are made of molecules, and molecules are made of atoms, and atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Generally, the conversation would proceed until I reached the smallest subatomic particle I could name, which was the quark, and which the believers asserted that God had to create. I generally answered that, while I do not know about the components of a quark, someday science would find out. I was fascinated with numbers from a very early age. I had learned to count at age two, before I learned to read, and by age four I was already delving into very large and very small numbers – to the hundreds of powers of ten, both positive and negative. I grasped that there was no limit in either direction to how large or small these numbers could get, and so I thought that there was also no upper or lower limit to humans’ eventual ability to understand existence at any magnification.

While my reasoning about religion at ages four and five may seem somewhat simplistic now – and the more sophisticated theists could find responses to my reasons for not believing in the existence of God back then – a habit of free thought was nonetheless established very early on in my life. It was never broken. I never hesitated to form my own opinions and to express them, sometimes in ways that got me in trouble with the various powers that be. I am, however, a better person because of this – because I acknowledge the power of evidence, reason, and my own mind in attempting to discover truth. While I may be wrong about particular ideas (and have been wrong in the past), the overall open-ended dynamic of my thinking enables me to overcome any specific errors and to improve my understanding.  I have never been subjected to successful indoctrination into a static, dogmatic worldview whose adherents fear questioning and challenge. The old Soviet system and its communist propaganda machine had already disintegrated by the time of my childhood, while the Orthodox religion – which now has a close affiliation with Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime in Belarus – was not yet strong enough to try to impose itself. I moved to the United States in time to avoid the worst of Lukashenko’s tyranny. Had I spent my teenage years in Belarus, I would likely have been imprisoned for political dissent. I was fortunate enough to have grown up during perhaps the freest era in the entire history of the former USSR. When I moved to the US, I certainly had more intellectual freedom than I would have had in Belarus had I remained.  But I also came to a society where atheism was a lot less common and a lot less understood.

                I have always tried to maintain a great deal of respect for post-Enlightenment interpretations of religion. Spending my teenage years in the suburbs of Chicago, I thought, initially, that this was pretty much how the majority of Americans viewed their faiths. I attended friends’ Bar Mitzvah ceremonies and engaged in interesting discussions with moderate Christians and Muslims. In that area, even those who called themselves conservatives generally considered religion to be a private matter and focused more on this-worldly political and economic subjects – for which I could respect them and have civil discussions with them. Ironically, it was the politically correct segment of the American Left (which, I understand, is not the entirety of the Left) that tried to crack down on my expression during that time, because I criticized premodern or “traditional” religious paradigms – including Aztec human sacrifice, the Hindu caste system, and traditional Chinese practices, such as foot binding, which were bound with religious views of women’s submissiveness and dependency. To the politically correct Left, all cultures and religions were equal as a matter of dogma – except, of course, for post-Enlightenment Western individualism and rationalism. I realized that atheists and freethinkers generally have as much to fear from this sort of indoctrination as they do from religious fundamentalism of any particular stripe. It does not matter, for instance, whether a blasphemy law or censorship of speech in the schools are based on the dominance of one particular religious sect, or on the fear of offending any religious sensibilities. Either way, the crucial human faculty of reason is muffled, and the capacity for intelligent critical thinking is stunted. Only the freedom of the mind can lead to the discovery of truth and the improvement of the human condition.

                Only when I went to college in Hillsdale, Michigan, did I discover that true premodern fundamentalist Christianity was far more prevalent than I had thought. The student body and professors at Hillsdale are split roughly along traditional conservative and libertarian lines. The libertarians – even those who are  personally religious – tend to be tolerant and to incorporate Enlightenment ideas of individual rights and free expression into their religious views. Many of the traditional conservatives, however, thought that religion was the only legitimate foundation for morality. Those of them who were raised entirely in religious settings – with no allowance for interaction with other worldviews and perspectives – were bewildered at how I, as an atheist, could do anything worthwhile at all. One of them – indeed, one of the better-behaved ones – was listening to me play the piano in one of the practice rooms in the music building. He then came in and asked, with sincerity, “That was beautiful, but I want to know… why? If you do not believe in God, what is the point in doing anything beautiful at all?” Another fundamentalist Christian, with whom I had quite a few discussions, suggested to me at one point that he and I could have nothing in common because I did not believe in God and his entire life was based on that belief. In return, I asked him whether he thought that two plus two made four. When he agreed that this was the case, I pointed out that I thought the same, and that this was indeed common ground. I tried my best to find as much of this sort of common ground as I could, and I made it a personal project of mine to give numerous presentations on campus about the possibility (and, indeed, the superiority) of non-religious objective morality. My many essays on the subject from that time period are freely available for all to read online.

                But it always baffled me how little I was able successfully get across to the fundamentalist Christians at Hillsdale that their way was not the only way. I never tried to de-convert them; rather, my objective was always simply to cultivate mutual respect and to lead them to recognize that, yes, atheists can be just as moral as some of them – while religion is no guarantee of moral conduct and can often be used to excuse genuine atrocities.  Perhaps I reached a few individuals, but many seemed impervious. As new groups of students came in every year, they came with the same preconceptions. It was like a vicious indoctrination machine was working to turn out fresh batches of carriers for the fundamentalist religion meme, with all the built-in defenses that meme entailed. I thought that, if only I could get them to drop the idea that morality requires religion, everything else about them could be maintained without too much harm. I realize now, however, that the pernicious notion of the Christian religion being the sole foundation of morality is one of the defense mechanisms that are deliberately inculcated into children by the cynical professional purveyors of Christian fundamentalism. Most children, and most human beings, want to be moral. Fortunately, in the real world, morality is a matter of actions and not beliefs. Thus, people of any persuasion can act morally by following rather simple negative and affirmative rules of conduct. Yet if, early on in their lives, people form a repeatedly reinforced association between morality and a particular religious persuasion, they will develop a visceral aversion to abandoning that persuasion – even if reason and experience show it to have numerous flaws. They fear that, if they cease being Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu – for that matter), they will cease to be moral human beings. This fear keeps them in the flock and keeps them paying money to the peddlers of their particular denomination’s doctrines.

              Yet reasons to be skeptical about religion abound. No person who is alive can avoid having doubts about pre-scientific systems of thought, formed millennia ago by people who were far less knowledgeable than even the average person today – and who were certainly far less civilized and moral in their personal conduct. Memes of hatred and insularity serve as the immune systems of fundamentalist religions. The more tolerant, post-Enlightenment interpretations of religion avoid these tactics by de-emphasizing institutional religious obedience and shifting their focus toward more abstract theology and more concrete real-world problems with secular solutions. This is an admirable attempt to salvage essential humanity from the grasp of dogma. Yet whether a child is born into a fundamentalist household or a more moderate religious household remains a matter of sheer chance. The children raised by fundamentalists continue to be subjected to an intellectual bubble, where questioning is discouraged and conformity in both thinking and practice is expected at the very least, and enforced through the threat of bodily punishment and social ostracism in many cases.

                I want every child to have the intellectual freedom that I had. I was surely raised with rules and discipline and expectations for moral behavior – but those can exist in complete independence from any expectation of religious or even broader philosophical adherence. Since morality is a matter of action and not thought, parents can expect their children to adhere to certain norms of conduct while leaving them free to think and believe anything they wish. I am not against religious adults who are intelligent and tolerant about their religion. But the choice to be religious or not must be made in an informed fashion, without the pressures of guilt, ostracism, or punishment. Thus, indoctrination into any belief system – without the allowance for dissent or even doubt – is a form of child abuse. It warps and stunts a child’s intellectual development and renders the child ripe for exploitation by knaves, charlatans, and demagogues in authority. Every parent needs to give his or her children the latitude to discover truth for themselves, and to commit errors in the mind of the parent, as long as those errors do not damage the children’s bodily well-being.

                As for me, I never felt myself to be constrained in my thinking – even during the times in my life when I was regimented in my routines of action, as I was in various public schools. I never felt that there were areas of existence or of my own interest that I could not explore. I never felt that I was a bad person for considering certain ideas and evaluating them on their merits. While many religious persons claim that there is a “void” in the human being that only their conception of a god or gods can fill, I never perceived such a void. Perhaps the void only occurs to those who abandon some part of their upbringing with which they were acquainted through repeated reinforcement; perhaps it is a form of nostalgia for a past to which they can no longer claim full allegiance. I, however, was always comfortable with reality as I perceived it through my senses and evaluated it through my mind. Existence is vast and extremely multifaceted. There is enough still unknown, still remaining to be discovered, that it never seemed fruitful to me to add another layer of obfuscatory complexity by superimposing a supernatural dimension upon the natural world. As for any intellectual errors of my past, they have not troubled me, since I consider myself to engage in a continual learning process, where improvement and not shame is the focus. It is better to have a good answer now, and to aspire toward making it better, than to blame oneself for not having the perfect answer the first time.

                As a self-supporting adult, I consider the lack of indoctrination and the ability to exercise complete independence of thought to be my greatest asset. Any situation I encounter – be it in the work I do for a living or in the endeavors I engage in as part of living well – can be approached using reason and evidence. I try to understand the fundamental constituents of the situation and their natures. I then use my analytical abilities and previously accumulated knowledge to construct a solution or improvement. Where I need to rely on the work of others, I use my reasoning abilities to evaluate for myself the degree of that work’s reliability. Everyone makes mistakes on occasion, and so do I. However, adherence to reason is a self-correcting mechanism that can extricate me from the mental traps and vulnerabilities that plague some people for an entire lifetime.

                In the years since I have graduated from college, I have been increasingly amazed at the breadth and open-endedness of existence. Life entails literally billions of possibilities and choices. While some people are, unfortunately, entangled in intellectual straitjackets and are pushed by their indoctrination along very specific and narrow paths (with well-known pitfalls along the way), I have always been determined to make a path of my own – based on my own values, my own talents, and my own flourishing. I will never allow dogma to blind me to possibilities for improvement. The earlier one embarks on this individualized journey, the easier it becomes to avoid common failure types in life. My plea to all parents is to allow their children this precious opportunity. Freedom of thought is the greatest gift you can give to your offspring, and it does not cost a penny.

The Benefits of a Non-Religious Upbringing – A Firsthand Account – Video Presentation and Q&A by G. Stolyarov II

The Benefits of a Non-Religious Upbringing – A Firsthand Account – Video Presentation and Q&A by G. Stolyarov II

Mr. Stolyarov speaks on the benefits of a non-religious upbringing and providing his firsthand account of how the absence of religious indoctrination during his childhood enabled him to thrive as a thinker and maintain a high quality of life in adulthood.

This speech was given at the cyber-rally for the Second Annual International Day of Protest Against Hereditary Religion on January 20, 2013.

In the recorded questions and answers following the presentation, Mr. Stolyarov discusses ways to reach out to other non-believers, possibilities in influencing individuals to increase their use of reason and critical thinking, connections between atheism and libertarianism, and the similarities in tactics used by traditional (premodern) religions and totalitarian regimes.

An MP3 version of this Q&A is available for download here.

Against Collectivist Violence in the Middle East – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Against Collectivist Violence in the Middle East – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Mr. Stolyarov condemns the murderous attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen and discusses how the philosophy of collectivism and collective guilt is the motivation for the attacks. These completely unjustified killings should result in the recognition that individuals should only be judged as individuals and only for the deeds that they personally committed, and that guilt by association is unacceptable. Mr. Stolyarov also calls for a non-interventionist foreign policy, for the individual perpetrators of the atrocities to be brought to justice, and for a more general Enlightenment to occur in the Middle East.

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-“US envoy killed as Libya mob storms embassy” – Agence France-Presse – September 12, 2012
-“New details emerge of anti-Islam film’s mystery producer” – Moni Basu – CNN- September 13, 2012
– “2012 U.S. diplomatic missions attacks
– “Yemeni protesters storm U.S. embassy compound in Sanaa” – Reuters – Mohammed Ghobari – September 13, 2012
– “Libya arrests four suspected in deadly US Consulate attack in Benghazi” – NBC News – September 13, 2012