Friday, June 09, 2006

Atheists and Kamikazes

"There are two kinds of atheists, ordinary atheists who do not believe in God and passionate atheists who consider God to be their personal enemy."

That comes near the beginning of a provocative essay-cum-book review by Freeman Dyson. Who then gives a nasty example of the latter:

During my tenure [at Cambridge], Professor Simpson, one of the old and famous fellows, died. Simpson had a strong sentimental attachment to the college and was a religious believer. He left instructions that he should be cremated and his ashes should be scattered on the bowling green in the fellows' garden where he loved to walk and meditate. A few days after he died, a solemn funeral service was held for him in the college chapel. His many years of faithful service to the college and his exemplary role as a Christian scholar and teacher were duly celebrated.

In the evening of the same day I took my place at the high table. One of the neighboring places at the table was empty. Professor [G.H.] Hardy [a "passionate atheist"], contrary to his usual habit, was late for dinner. After we had all sat down and the Latin grace had been said, Hardy strolled into the dining hall, ostentatiously scraping his shoes on the wooden floor and complaining in a loud voice for everyone to hear, "What is this awful stuff they have put on the grass in the fellows' garden? I can't get it off my shoes." Hardy, of course, knew very well what the stuff was. He had always disliked religion in general and Simpson's piety in particular, and he was taking his opportunity for a little revenge.

The main subject of the review is Daniel Dennett, the wanna-be bête noire of believers. But by the end of Dyson's piece, he's comparing kamikazes to the 9/11 terrorists. All worth chewing on. It's a comparison that's been made before, and Dyson seems to me over-eager to elevate the al-Qaida cells to the ideal world of the kamikazes -- "thoughtful and sensitive young men, neither religious nor nationalistic fanatics."

You might possibly convince a kamikaze pilot that an American office building was the same thing as an American battleship. But then he wouldn't be quite the same sensitive poetic soul he was in fact in 1945. And even then you still haven't convinced him that it's honorable to whip out a box cutter and slit the throat of the stewardess who's just offered you a pillow for your head.