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    Pride is at center of today's 'atheistic' culture

    Vaclav Havel, the poet-turned-president, has something of value to say about a culture too proud of its knowledge to even think there is anything of mystery in the universe.

    Vaclav Havel

    Vaclav Havel International Monetary Fund

    Twenty years ago the remarkable Czech poet and playwright, Vaclav Havel, came to the world's attention as a leader of the Czech resistance to Soviet totalitarianism. Subsequently, the poet became a president, the first president of the Czech Republic.

    This month Havel addressed the opening ceremony of Forum 2000, a conference on architecture and urbanism, with an extended lament on the heedlessness of modern life.

    “Our cities,” Havel said as he began his remarks, “are being permitted without control to destroy the surrounding landscape with its nature, traditional pathways, avenues of trees, villages, mills, and meandering streams, and build in their place some sort of gigantic agglomeration that renders life nondescript, disrupts the network of natural human communities and under the banner of international uniformity it attacks all individuality, identity, or heterogeneity.”

    Havel asserts that we are not only living in the first truly global civilization but “also the first atheistic civilization,” “a civilization that has lost its connection with the infinite and the eternal.” In his protest against both globalism and atheism, Havel sounds very much like another artist, the American writer and farmer, Wendell Berry.

    What Havel means by “atheism” is noteworthy and, in the American context, unusual. He doesn’t define it in relation to creed or church, but as a kind of self-confident heedlessness that neglects relationships and limits. “The most dangerous aspect of this global atheistic civilization is its pride," he said. "The pride of someone driven by the very logic of his wealth to stop respecting the contribution of nature and our forebears, to stop respecting it on principle and respect it only as a further potential of profit.”

    With no notion of the infinite, humanity has, as Havel sees it, lost a proper sense of its own finitude.

    “I sense behind all of this not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilization, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it.”

    “But with the cult of measurable profit, proven progress, and visible usefulness, there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizon of our actions.”

    In America we have become accustomed to the debates of believers and the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al.) as something both creedal and political. The New Atheists believe that religion is the problem and banishing religion will automatically lead to a new enlightenment.

    For Havel, the atheism that worries him is less confessional (“Do you believe in God?”) than functional (“Are you aware of your own finitude?”). It manifests itself as a loss of wonder and mystery, and of a sense of limits and restraint. “Wonder and an awareness that things are not self-evident are, I believe, the only way out of the dangerous world of a civilization of pride.”

    Havel included in his remarks to the architects and urban planners reflections on the present economic crisis. He describes it as, “a very edifying signal to the contemporary world.”

    “Most economists relied directly or indirectly on the idea that the world, including human conduct, is more or less understandable, scientifically describable and hence predictable," Havel said. "Market economics and its entire legal framework counted on knowing who man is and what aims he pursues, what was the logic behind the actions of banks or firms, what the shareholding public does and what one may expect from some particular firm or community.

    “And all of sudden none of that applied. Irrationality leered at us from the stock-exchange screens. And even the most fundamentalist economists, who — having the most intimate access to the truth — were convinced with unshakeable assurance that the invisible hand of the market knew what it was doing, had suddenly to admit they were taken by surprise.

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    Posted Wed, Oct 27, 4:44 a.m. Inappropriate

    That's pure assertion with no foundation. Havel's perspective and nothing more. He offers no reference to any text or act. He cannot. 

    I can define atheism as "love of bowling" but that doesn't make it so.

    Likewise, Havel can claim that atheism is "self-confident heedlessness that neglects relationships and limits."  And that too is without basis. He doesn't even offer any examples. Just mere claims.

    He alludes to the collapse of the housing market as something magical and mystical when it's obvious that making home loans without lending standards was just stupid. Do I suggest that there is no mystery concerning the behavior of humans? Of course not. But there is no relationship between recognizing unknown unknowns (and maybe unknown unknowables) has nothing to do with religion or atheism.    

    If someone has a religious belief, that's fine. Pray, Believe. But please let's not contort definition of words to suit his or her own purpose.

    It's comical, certainly a bit presumptuous (even if he is a 'name') that someone would claim that atheists don't have a sense of awe about the world and our existence -- a sense of awe about the stars in the sky or a bowling ball or even people who make odd assertions.

    Btw, fwiw, I am not an atheist.  

    Posted Wed, Oct 27, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

    I think that Havel's definition of atheism is quite applicable to the Madalyn Murray O'Hair style of atheists who you frequently see protesting about a manger scene in the town square or who want to tear down war memorials that feature crosses. But these people aren't atheistic at all. Religion consumes them. They are antitheistic and they are very evangenical in, and crusdaters for, their antitheism.

    Most true atheists don't concern themselves with organized religion. That should be the definition of an atheist: One who is without religion. That word should not be applied to people who plot, plan, and organize their lives around a battle against religion. I'd say it's time for a new word to describe the atheists that Havel is speaking of. Ironically, it's the religious right that's given words like "atheist" and "humanist" their sinister cast. If they'd just stick to their kintting and stop trying to cram their social agendas down people's throats, most true atheists wouldn't have a problem.


    Posted Wed, Oct 27, 11:38 a.m. Inappropriate


    On what basis do you claim that "Madalyn Murray O'Hair style of atheists" have no sense of awe and wonder about the world?

    Posted Wed, Oct 27, 11:42 a.m. Inappropriate

    I don't know what they feel in their hearts and minds; all I know is their actions. I fault them for their vendetta against religion. I'm not a religious person, but I don't consider religion my enemy, and I have plenty of awe and wonder about the world. I don't like opera, either, but I don't wage war on those who attend them.


    Posted Wed, Oct 27, 1:13 p.m. Inappropriate


    Great! I wasn't looking for hearts and minds.

    I am looking for actions. For manifestation. So what examples can you offer? I am genuinely curious.

    Posted Wed, Oct 27, 1:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    It is precisely this "connection with the infinite and with eternity" that enabled us to live for so long in a manner contrary to the "laws" of nature.

    The short-sightedness and self consciousness of civilization are caused by our supercilious idea that all this was made for us and that the gods would continuously provide for us regardless of how we take care of our environment.

    If, indeed, this were an atheist civilization we would surely be more environmentally conscious since we would realize that this planet is our home and we have to take better care of it. Instead we've been ravaging it. We're in the middle of a period of mass extinction not seen since the fall of the dinosaurs and we're the ones causing it. We are one of many animals who call this planet home. We may very well be the ones to ruin it for everyone. The very notion of god enables the very behaviour that has brought us to this point. The gods go hand in hand with agriculture and the only interpretation of the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve that makes sense is that of the agricultural revolution. We invented the idea of gods to justify our culture of consumption.

    Posted Wed, Oct 27, 1:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    In 1963, Lyndon Johnson became President of the United States after the untimely death of his predecessor, John Kennedy. Johnson set about an ambitious social agenda that he labeled the Great Society, which consisted of a wide range of measures including the War of Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights, voting rights, public radio and television, Head Start, and others.

    Despite the most comprehensive legislative agenda in the nation's history to address the needs of the poor and disadvantaged minorities, the final year of Johnson's presidency brought a great deal of social turmoil, including devastating race riots. This too was hard to understand. The Great Society was the culmination of the New Deal effort to solve social problems using the rational means of legislation aimed directly at those problems. The events of 1968 seemed to discredit the underlying assumption behind the policy: that social problems could be solved through legislation. The year 1968 began a 40+ year trend of more conservative politics that would be much more skeptical of the New Deal philosophy.

    So, did the events of 1968 bring about an increased humility in the face of the complexity of the modern world and skepticism of using rational and scientific means of bettering society? Not really. The subsequent decades would bring new applications of economic principles, in the forms of deregulation, free trade, and supply side economics. These too were promised to the public as rational and scientific means of bettering society. Despite prognostications of the increasing postmodern orientation of the world, the habits of using reason to understand and control the world die hard.

    Posted Wed, Oct 27, 3:08 p.m. Inappropriate

    David Sucher writes: "So what examples can you offer?"

    In addition to what I mentioned in my original post, I'm talking about the types of frivolous lawsuits designed to get "In God We Trust" off our currency, or to prevent religious groups from using school facilities for private meetings, or to prevent municipalities from erecting Christmas trees. These slight transgressions against an absolutist reading of the establishment clause do real harm to no one and the people who bring these types of lawsuits give the non-religious a bad image in the eyes of the majority of their fellow citizens. It's petty and counter-productive.


    Posted Wed, Oct 27, 3:54 p.m. Inappropriate


    Ahhh. I think that you and I are talking about totally different issues.

    Havel, Robinson et al claim that atheists don't have any sense of awe.
    I think that they are wrong and their statement has no basis in reality.
    That's one question. People of good intention may disagree.

    But you are talking about whether atheism is "petty and counter-productive." That's an entirely separate question. You could well be correct but it has nothing to do with whether atheists have a sense of awe.

    Posted Thu, Oct 28, 7:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    David Sucher writes: "But you are talking about whether atheism is 'petty and counter-productive.'¨

    What I'm saying is that the antitheists, those who rail against religion, are engaged in a battle that is frequently petty and counter-productive. I'm not sure if they have awe in anything other than their own ability to attract reporters like flies. I think this attitude is also reflected in the type of atheism Havel deplores.

    I think that real atheists, those for whom religion just isn't a part of their lives, are perfectly capable of drawing inspiration from the natural world. Prime example: Carl Sagan. That guy had enough awe and wonder for a bushel basket full of people, even those who are very religious themselves.


    Posted Thu, Oct 28, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    Well terrific!
    It sounds as if you and I agree and that Havel and Robinson are mistaken.

    Posted Thu, Oct 28, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

    Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, just to name a few. Richard Dawkins, even (read his work carefully). Christopher Hitchens may not write of it often, but I'm sure this applies to him as well. I think Havel should have chosen a different word. He's talking about those who have no capability of thinking about things in the long-term, and in that sense, he's describing a great many people, including many who profess belief in a higher power. It's partially because of people's misunderstanding of atheism, I think, that an admitted atheist is extremely unlikely to become president in my lifetime. http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistbigotryprejudice/a/AtheistSurveys.htm

    Posted Thu, Oct 28, 11:27 a.m. Inappropriate

    Tony, this is your strangest effort to date. At points when I was reading, I was ROTFLMAO, as the kids say today.

    To blame atheists for suburban sprawl is just bizarre. To generalize about atheists is a mistake, too, since the only thing they have in common is a non-belief in god.

    dbreneman, I think your term, antitheist is incorrect--you want antireligionist. Antitheist implies a belief in god. Antireligionist is better, since the set you are talking about are just really pissed off at religion being forced on them by law or social convention.

    I would also add Albert Einstein to the list of atheists with a sense of awe and infinity.

    p.s. Tony, it would be fun if you would chime in with rebuttals!


    Posted Thu, Oct 28, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

    andy, I think you have a good point. My point was that atheist is a terrible word for these people; something different is needed. And to David Sucher, I think we do basically agree, as apparently does Benjamin Lukoff. The problem with the people Havel decries is that they don't really believe in anything except immediate gratification. In that way they remind me alot of the typical Harvard MBA, a person who devotes six years of his life and hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire the still of utterly destroying a company while, all along the way, showing a profit at the end of every quarter.

    These people are to a certain extent parasites on the civilization that nurtured them, an idea that would, of course, never cross their minds.


    Posted Thu, Oct 28, 1:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    Well, it seems we are all agreeing today--how boring.

    I wonder if something did get lost in the Havel translation. The globalism reference make sense to me, but I can't see where atheists play any part. Perhaps if we had lived through the soviet era in eastern Europe it would make sense, but I always thought the communists combated religion because it competed with the power of the state, not out of any theistic concerns.

    We could come up with any number of counter examples to the Havel/Robinson article. Walmart has heavy fundamentalist christian heritage, and is arguably the most arrogant, pride-filled, globalistic, sprawl inducing, environment destroying entity on earth.


    Posted Thu, Oct 28, 1:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    This is a bit of a diversion, but interesting:


    "While fundamentalist Jews, Christians, and Moslems are singularly attached to their literal interpretations of particular texts, fundamentalist consumerists are singularly attached to cheap stuff. All fundamentalists decry, deny, or ignore the multiple dimensions of life that fall outside their particular theologies and ideologies. Fundamentalist consumerists could not care less about workers' rights, human-scale business, environmental sanity, and -- as the surviving friends and family of Wal-Mart temporary maintenance worker Jdimytai Damour will attest -- human life."


    Posted Thu, Oct 28, 9:58 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks you Quinn for pointing the link to Havel's speech. It is definitely worth reading because not often do I see so much wisdom combined with hokum.

    Of course I sympathize with Havel about the state of the built environment; who doesn't? Even people in the suburbs complain about the suburbs -- that's why they so often fight development. (But it's interesting that it had gotten so bad to think of Prague surrounded by strip-malls and big-box stores!)

    But Havel is sadly uninformed of the environmental history of the past 150 years or so. To attribute "atheism" to the development of auto-oriented suburbs is preposterous. The idea that the suburbs are about atheism is risible. Just go look and see. Does one really think that the anti-city car-cultists around Seattle are atheists? I would surmise that you find a direct correlation between red suburbs of faith and suburbs of cars and you find the godless atheists most plentiful in the few real cities we have in the USA.

    Even if Havel is referring to bad (i.e. auto-dominated) development = atheism (i.e. Stalinism) he has it wrong. Alternatively, I can cobble together a theory which links atheism, individualism, Calvin, cars and bad urban development. But it's a whole lot simpler than either Stalinism or Protestanism: auto-oriented development came about because people like cars and the freedom and personal autonomy which cars give them. Yet, we haven't been able to figure out how to humanely integrate the personal vehicle with settlements. It's a big subject but not complex and yet not easy as to solutions. It should only be so easy that better cities turns on belief in God.

    I'd suggest to Havel a little more history, analysis and Occam's razor and a bit less Platonism.

    Posted Fri, Oct 29, 11:38 a.m. Inappropriate

    Fantastic comments!

    It is true some atheists can be considered self-indulgent--I know I am. I really enjoy high-priced bourbon. A sip of a wee dram of Blanton's make me think it was touched by the hand of God.

    Also, I hate anti-bacterial soap. I believe it is one of the most disgusting, dangerous, unnecessary products in the world, yet I am often forced to use it in public places and at friend's houses. I complain about it bitterly every chance I get. If you get it on your hands, the smell stays for days. Once some one "did me a favor" and washed my favorite coffee cup with it. I almost had to throw it away.

    I love baseball, but I dislike the song "God Bless America", which we are sometime forced to endure during the 7th inning stretch. I dislike it not because of the God reference, but because of the line "Oceans white with foam".

    My point? I am a self-indulgent complainer, but not because I am an atheist.


    Posted Fri, Oct 29, 11:38 a.m. Inappropriate

    I believe the discussion the author intends is one between those who believe that there is an Other - whether Divine or otherwise that is greater than themselves and those who see themselves, either individually or collectively as greater than all others. I believe this is the same trouble that the Biblical story of The Tower of Babel dealt with - A human attempt to "reach heaven" (read: take the place and role of God). I believe that the Icarus myth carries the same anti-hubris message. While Athiests are an easy target for such and example, I find no less of a transgression in the claim that "America the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth"

    Posted Fri, Oct 29, 12:22 p.m. Inappropriate

    Touché to your pun. You assume I am a "seeker" (whatever that is) vs an atheist. Putting aside what you mean by "seeker" the translation of my name "sucher" is German for "seeker" or "searcher" or maybe even " hunter?" ...very poetic and all that...for those who may not get it. Very funny, Quinn.

    Nonetheless, my complaint about Havel -- as nice and interesting and amiable as he may be -- getting atheism involved with urban design just confuses issues and makes reasonable solutions more difficult. James Howard Kunstler makes the same terrible error -- that bad urban planning is a matter of morality. I wished that Havel had just let it be and noted the terrible state of our built environment. Now he has just diverted people who have little background with environmental history (our author Tony Robinson?) from practical work to trying to convert people. Occam is one of my heroes: just go at it to find the simplest answer. Alas Havel just confounds us with mention of the supernatural when largely he should be talking about is the location of the parking lot if he is concerned about urban planning.

    Posted Fri, Oct 29, 3:56 p.m. Inappropriate

    "I believe the discussion the author intends is one between those who believe that there is an Other - whether Divine or otherwise that is greater than themselves and those who see themselves, either individually or collectively as greater than all others."

    Hit the nail on the head. This is the classic false dichotomy to which many regionists resort.

    The other classic religionist fallacy is that there is less morality without religion, when in fact there is a reverse correlation between religiosity and morality. I believe this is the argument Havel (and Tony) are using--that if we had more "God", we would be more moral and, as a result, screw up the landscape less. In fact we have the mega church with its huge parking lots and auto centric design, a temple to reglionist consumerism and pride. Drive through, strip mall religion where the ATM is the prominent feature in the lobby.


    Posted Sat, Oct 30, 11 p.m. Inappropriate

    Quinn, most of us know it as The Good Soldier Schweik. The diacritical marks don't improve the literature, nor does their lack prevent us from its appreciation. If you're going to insist upon such proper stuff, then calling Europe the "Old World" isn't too cool.

    DBreneman, protests of religious displays in governmental spaces aren't limited to atheists. Such displays are almost always Christian and as such represent a governmental endorsement of a particular religion.


    Posted Sat, Oct 30, 11:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    Havel has used the term "atheism" or "atheist" in a complex, nuanced way that the average American reader won't stop to give much thought to. He's a writer, a dramatist, a poet--and American politicians don't speak in a literary or poetic way. American political culture is linguistically fairly blunt, unidimensional, and unironic. Czech political culture, I suspect, is linguistically the opposite.

    I wonder if the Czech word translated as "atheism" doesn't bring along a whole slough of nuances and baggage absent from the English word, while the English word has all kinds of nuances and baggage absent from the Czech word. Seems like that whole aspect of the discussion is missing.


    Posted Sun, Oct 31, 8:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    "Good intentions" are not enough in language -- you have to get the word right.
    And Havel (or his translator) had the wrong term.
    If he truly meant "atheism" then there is no historical basis to his claim.
    Or if he meant something else, then we have missed the point.
    But in no case is there any connection between quality of built environment and human sensitivity, "spirituality," humility much less a literal belief in G-d.

    Posted Sun, Oct 31, 11:23 p.m. Inappropriate

    I am a great fan of Prince Charles but he's intellectually wrong and politically unwise to raise issue of morality, spirituality and so forth. Why raise religion? All it produces is rancor.

    In fact I was just thinking earlier today of Havel, Charles and Kiunstler as all getting it right about what is wrong but making the same mistake in how to solve the problem i.e. they bring religion, morality etc etc into the story and it's a non-starter.

    Btw what do you mean by "repo."

    Posted Mon, Nov 1, 12:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    Look, Mr. Havel is an important man and obviously he influences people such as Mr. Robinso and he in turn influences others.

    So of course ideally Havel would reconsider and publicly modify his views.

    Posted Mon, Nov 1, 1:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    I am more interested in why Tony chose this speech to highlight. Was it just a knee jerk reaction to an anti-atheist headline or was there something deeper? I had this same knee jerk reaction when I saw the "God Hates Figs" poster:

    "Mark 11:12-14 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14Then he said to the tree, 'May no one ever eat fruit from you again.' And his disciples heard him say it."


    Posted Tue, Nov 2, 11:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    I appreciate all of the comments so far.I have followed Havel with great interest. At the rick of making the same mistake of rhetorical overreach when he blames "atheism" for so many world ills, i suggest that the actual moving force behind the problems he correctly identified is capitalism.

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