“to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel”

A reader, Sam, sent some fascinating excerpts from a court decision in 1824, Updegraph v. Commonwealth. It was a small case that prompted the judge to write a seventeen page furious rant, and reading it will make you realize what Glenn Beck’s America would like to return to — no, thanks, I wouldn’t like it.

This was a blasphemy trial. The guilty party (and yes, he was found guilty), had said this one terrible, awful, horrifying sentence:

“That the Holy Scriptures were a mere fable: That they were a contradiction, and that, although they contained a number of good things, yet they contained a great many lies.

Mild stuff, I know; much ruder things are said about the Bible here every day. Yet here in the judge’s summary is the context: this was a point made in a debating society, where I’d think such a discussion would be fair game, but here the judge rants that not only were such words far beyond the pale of civilized discussion, but that the purpose of such a group was “to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel”.

This verdict excludes every thing like innocence of intention; it finds a malicious intention in the speaker to vilify the Christian Religion, and the Scriptures, and this court cannot look beyond the record… that the words were uttered by the defendant, a member of a debating association, which convened weekly for discussion and mutual information, and that the expressions were used in the course of argument on a religious question. That there is an association in which so serious a subject is treated with so much levity, indecency, and scurrility, existing in this city, I am sorry to hear, for it would prove a nursery of vice, a school of preparation to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel, and there is not a skeptic of decent manners and good morals, who would not consider such debating clubs as a common nuisance and disgrace to the city. From the tenor of the words, it is impossible that they could be spoken seriously and conscientiously, in the discussion of a religious or theological topic; there is nothing of argument in the language; it was the out-pouring of an invective so vulgarly shocking and insulting, that the lowest grade of civil authority ought not to be subject to it, but when spoken in a Christian land, and to a Christian audience, the highest offence [harmful to the moral welfare of society]…

I feel sad that the judge is not alive today to witness the internet. I’m also curious about the circumstances of the arrest — did some Christian prig attend the debating society meeting and rush out in horror to call the police?

The judge had to act to prevent the erosion of moral restraints.

It is sometimes asked with a sneer, Why not leave it to Almighty God to revenge his own cause? Temporal courts do so leave it. ‘Bold and presumptuous would be the man who would attempt to arrest the thunder of heaven from the hand of God, and direct the bolts of vengeance where to fall.’ It is not on this principle courts act, but on the dangerous temporal consequences likely to proceed from the removal of religious and moral restraints…

And here’s a part that hasn’t changed a bit in 186 years:

…it is the purest system of morality, the firmest auxiliary, and only stable support of all human laws. It is impossible to administer the laws without taking the religion which the [defendant] has scoffed at, that Scripture which he has reviled, as their basis.

The only parts of the law that seem to be derived from Scripture are some of the more prudish laws restricting behavior on the Sabbath and, well, blasphemy laws. I think we can dispense with them all.

By the way, the accused was fined 5 shillings and court costs.

6 August 1945

History is not going to judge us kindly for this crime against humanity. Never again.

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In the following waves [after the initial blast] people’s bodies were terribly squeezed, then their internal organs ruptured. Then the blast blew the broken bodies at 500 to 1,000 miles per hour through the flaming, rubble-filled air. Practically everybody within a radius of 6,500 feet was killed or seriously injured and all buildings crushed or disemboweled.

Japanese doctors said that those who had been killed by the blast itself died instantly. But presently, according to these doctors, those who had suffered only small burns found their appetite failing, their hair falling out, their gums bleeding. They developed temperatures of 104, vomited blood, and died. It was discovered that they had lost 86 percent of their white blood corpuscles. Last week the Japanese announced that the count of Hiroshima’s dead had risen to 125,000.

I am completely unswayed by the argument that the bombing saved American lives by convincing the Japanese that their cause was hopeless. If that were true, why not bomb a nearby deserted atoll as a demonstration? Why bomb two cities over the course of several days? Why not pick a military target rather than a civilian center? This was an act of callous terrorism.


Still arguing? Go watch this fabulous dialog between AC Grayling and Christopher Hitchens, discussing Grayling’s book, Among the Dead Cities. Grayling makes the same argument I do, that the bombing of civilians was immoral and to little material effect. The surprising thing, though, is that I expected Hitchens to go all militaristic, but he doesn’t; he actually deplores the area bombing campaign. He draws a stronger conclusion — he thinks the complete and unambiguous defeat of Nazi Germany was necessary to allow rebuilding of the country, but he thinks the attempts to destroy the German culture with devastating firebombing was not a rightful act.

On the etymological association of atheist and scientist

I’d known for a long time that the term “scientist” had been coined in the early 19th century, but I just ran across a first-hand account of the event by the fellow who came up with it, William Whewell. The context is this: many in the science establishment of the day had been chafing at the premier British institution, the Royal Society, which had grown stodgy and was infested with politicians, bishops, and other such hangers-on, and they formed a new institution, the British Association for the Advancement of Science. As part of the process of establishing their identity, they struggled with coming up with an appropriate noun to describe their membership.

Formerly the ‘learned’ embraced in their wide grasp all the branches of the tree of knowledge, mathematicians as well as philologers, physical as well as antiquarian speculators. But these days are past… This difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the BAAS at Cambridge last summer. There was no general term by which these gentlemen* could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits.

‘Philosophers’ was felt to be too wide and lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr Coleridge, both in his capacity as a philologer and metaphysician. ‘Savans’ was rather assuming and besides too French; but some ingenious gentleman [Whewell!] proposed that, by analogy with ‘artist’, they might form ‘scientist’ — and added that there could be no scruple to this term since we already have such words as ‘economist’ and ‘atheist’—but this was not generally palatable.

That is so familiar: the deference to a classical scholar, poet, and ‘metaphysician’ (although, actually, Coleridge was no dummy and did provide thoughtful contributions), and the use of French as an insult. I would warm to the analogy with ‘atheist’, but apparently, that comparison almost sank the word. To be tangled with atheism…oh, my. Adam Sedgwick, the geologist and devout Anglican, was in a fury about “scientist”.

Better die of this want [of a term] than bestialize our tongue by such a barbarism!

It was a natural extension of the word, though, and was rapidly adopted — it was in the OED by 1840.

Sedgwick, by the way, was an interesting fellow despite being encumbered with an excess of faith. He was an important contributor to modern geology who named the Devonian and Cambrian. He was also an adamant creationist who vehemently opposed that whole new-fangled theory of evolution when Darwin proposed it…but Darwin was a former student, and they remained friends throughout their dispute. He also made this well known statement about conflicts between science and the Bible, which I rather like for reasons other than Sedgwick’s.

No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true… Conflicting falsehoods we can comprehend; but truths can never war against each other. I affirm, therefore, that we have nothing to fear from the results of our enquiries, provided they be followed in the laborious but secure road of honest induction. In this way we may rest assured that we shall never arrive at conclusions opposed to any truth, either physical or moral, from whatever source that truth may be derived.

It’s a statement that is simultaneously scientific and anti-scientific. He’s saying that we should follow the evidence whereever it may lead, confident that we will arrive at the honest truth, which is good; however, he’s saying it to reassure himself and the audience that science will never be in conflict with the Bible. He was wrong. His problem was in failing to administer the same standards of truth and robust reason to his holy book that he was applying to science.

He wrote a review of Robert Chambers’ book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, that was a pre-Darwin evolutionary account of the history of life. Sedgwick did not like it, no sir, not one bit.

…If the book be true, the labours of sober induction are in vain; religion is a lie; human law is a mass of folly, and a base injustice; morality is moonshine; our labours for the black people of Africa were works of madmen; and man and woman are only better beasts!

I would remind him that “No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true”, and that if a consequence of the examination of the natural world was a revelation that “religion is a lie,” then so be it. Atheist, scientist, there isn’t necessarily a heck of a lot of difference.


*It was initially set up as a boys’ club. Women were not allowed to be members until 1853; however, about a quarter of the attendees of the early BA meetings were women. They were only allowed to attend special sessions that had been reviewed to determine if they were suitable for women, however.

Amazing gibberish

Renew America, the bizarrely, deeply, weirdly conservative web site founded by Alan Keyes, really had to struggle to find someone crazier than Pastor Grant Swank and Fred Hutchison and Bryan Fischer and Wes Vernon (let alone Alan Keyes himself), but they have succeeded. They have Linda Kimball writing for them. She has written the strangest history of evolutionary biology ever — I think she was stoned out of her mind and hallucinating when she made this one up. It’s called “Evolutionism: the dying West’s science of magic and madness“. The title alone is enough to hint at the weirdness within, but just wait until you read where evolution comes from.

Though taught under the guise of empirical science, naturalistic evolution is really a spiritual concept whose taproot stretches back to the dawn of history. It was then, reports ancient Jewish historian Josephus, that Nimrod (Amraphel in the Old Testament) used terror and force to turn the people away from God and toward the worship of irrational nature. Moving forward in time to the Greco-Roman world, evolution serves as the mechanism of soul-transference in metempsychosis and transmigration of souls. In the ancient East, the mystical Upanishads refine evolution and it becomes the mechanism of soul-movement in involutions, emergences, incarnations, and reincarnation. In that both rationalist/materialist/secularism and its’ counterpart Eastern/occult pantheism are modernized nature pseudo-religions, it comes as no surprise that evolution serves as their ‘creation mythos’.

It’s a little surprising that Josephus isn’t regarded as a member of the Greco-Roman world, but I had no idea that I was teaching about metempsychosis and reincarnation. The students are going to be really shocked when I put that on the exam next year.

Kimball’s grip on the history of the last century is no better than her understanding of prior millennia, either.

Today, in addition to original Darwinism — which many scientists have already rejected as useless — there are three other versions of Naturalist evolutionism: neo-Darwinism, punctuated equilibrium, and panspermia, the notion that life was seeded on Earth by highly evolved beings either from another planet, or from another dimension. The latter two versions are favored by powerful Transnational Progressive New Age occult insiders such as Marilyn Ferguson, Robert Muller and Barbara Marx Hubbard as well as by channeling cults who are excitedly ‘receiving revelations’ from discarnate entities calling themselves the Space Brothers, the Council of Nine, Transcended Masters, and more recently, the ancient Ennead of Egypt.

Uh, neo-Darwinism is Darwinism with genetics and population genetics; it’s an evolution of the original theory proposed by Darwin. Punctuated equilibrium is a much narrower subset of evolutionary theory that describes the distribution of observable change in a fossil lineage. It’s nowhere near the same footing or the same scope as neo-Darwinism.

Panspermia isn’t even on the radar.

How come the Space Brothers, the Council of Nine, Transcended Masters, and the ancient Ennead of Egypt never show up at any of the biology conferences I attend (is anyone else confused by the conjunction of “recently” with the ancient Ennead)? And they never publish!

Then there are the conspiracy theories. You knew there had to be conspiracy theories.

Whereas occult pantheism quietly flowed beneath ‘red-colored’ atheist-materialist-communism and Nazism during the twentieth century, that order is quickly reversing. Today, ‘green-colored’ occult pantheist-socialism is brazenly striding onto the world-stage in full public view while materialist-secularism slowly fades to black. Already, zealous High Priests and Priestesses of the occult arts are calling the U.N the world church and the world mind, while other madmen such as David Spangler, demand that everyone submit to a satanic-initiation to qualify for entry to the coming green New World Order.

Back away slowly, everyone. This one needs the tranq gun and the rubber room.

She seems to have confused us godless atheistic materialist evilutionists for a bunch of New Age wackaloons. And her bottom-line message is that we have to prop up good old Christianity, because otherwise the tree-worshipping Satanists are going to take over.

Oldie moldies that are pretty darned fascinating

The Royal Society of London is releasing free pdfs of some of its best-known papers — and we’re talking real classics. Check out their timeline which lets you scan for papers in chronological order; the oldest are a pair for 1666-1667 by Robert Boyle and Robert Hook(e), which will horrify modern audiences: they describe experiments in blood transfusions and examinations of the lungs in dogs. I would not have wanted to be a dog in 17th century London, that’s for sure.

One that is particularly interesting is this account of a new technique in preventative medicine from 1736: “An Account of Inoculation by Sir Hans Sloane, Bart. Given to Mr. Ranby, to be Published, Anno 1736. Communicated by Thomas Birch, D. D. Secret. R. S.” It describes the use of small pox vaccinations, and contains this prescient closer:

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He’s using “wonderful” in an archaic sense of “strange and astonishing”. And isn’t it strange that still today we have people fighting vaccination through “dread of other diſtempers being inculcated with it, and other unreaſonable prejudices”?

My favorite paper of the bunch, and the one that ought to be required reading for biologists, is The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme”. If you haven’t read it yet, you should…maybe right after you finish browsing the collection of olde curiosities on that page.

Hitler’s library

This is a fascinating article about Hitler’s library: he was an avid collector and reader, and part of his collection still exists, and you can even stroll down to the Library of Congress and ask to browse through the stockpile. The bulk of the books are about military strategy and tactics, and a subset are Hitler’s personal favorite light reading, cowboy stories. But there are also many religious texts that give insight into the way his mind worked.

Experts since then have been of two minds on the matter of Hitler’s spiritual beliefs. Ian Kershaw argues that Hitler consciously constructed an image of himself as a messianic figure, and eventually came to believe the very myth he had helped to fashion. “The more he succumbed to the allure of his own Führer cult and came to believe in his own myth, the more his judgment became impaired by faith in his own infallibility,” Kershaw writes in The Hitler Myth (1987). But believing in a messianic myth is not the same as believing in God. When I asked Kershaw in 2001 whether he thought Hitler actually believed in divine providence, he dismissed the notion. “I don’t think that he had any real belief in a deity of any sort, only in himself as a ‘man of destiny’ who would bring about Germany’s ‘salvation,'” he declared. Gerhard Weinberg, who helped sort through the Hitler Library back in the 1950s, likewise dismisses the notion of Hitler as a religious believer, insisting that he was driven by the twin passions of Blut und Boden–racial purity and territorial expansion. “He didn’t believe in anything but himself,” Weinberg told me last summer. Most historians tend to agree.

Some non-historians, however, have different views. In the 1960s Friedrich Heer, a prominent and controversial Viennese theologian, identified Hitler as a misguided “Austrian Catholic,” a man whose faith was disastrously misplaced but nevertheless sincere. In a dense, 750-page treatise Heer saw Hitler the Austrian Catholic at every turn: the nine-year-old choirboy catching his first glimpse of a swastika in the coat of arms at the Lambach Monastery; the beer-hall orator whose speeches resound with biblical allusions; the Führer of the Reich who re-created the splendor of the Catholic mass at the annual Nuremberg rally. Even his virulent hatred of Jewry found sustenance in those roots. Fritz Redlich, an eminent Yale psychiatrist, asserts in his book, Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, that Hitler acted from a profound belief in God. Noting Hitler’s own words “Man kommt um den Gottesbegriff nicht um” (“You cannot get around the concept of God”), Redlich told me last summer that he was certain Hitler believed in a “divine creature.” He rejected suggestions that Hitler’s invocations of the divine were little more than cynical public posturing and insisted that we ought to take Hitler at his word: “In a way, Hitler was a terrible liar, but he was a tactical liar. In his essential line of thinking he was honest.”

I tend to favor the opinion that he was a lousy Catholic…but an even lousier atheist.

Happy Anniversary, Origin…some good news

Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and a few sites have taken notice.

A new science blog, The Whirlpool of Life, opens today.

CNN has published a brief retrospective from Richard Dawkins. It focuses entirely on “militant atheism”, which is odd since the book itself did not promote unbelief, but also indirectly appropriate, since the concept did end up undermining the argument from design, and contributed significantly to making god irrelevant.

And…that’s about it. No fireworks, no triumphant announcements, no scientists standing outside in candlelight vigils singing hosannas to Chuck. That’s about right, I think — it’s a great book, it made a difference in the intellectual world, but it ain’t religion, thank dog.