Friday, July 31, 2009

"free to profess and by argument to maintain"

Two of the most prominent of the so-called New Atheists have finally gotten it off their chests: they are now both clearly on the record in favor of outright religious intolerance in general and discrimination in hiring on the basis of religious beliefs in particular.

Richard Dawkins, an internationally known scientist, author and social and political activist says that Francis Collins, a colleague of his in the biological sciences who happens to be Presbyterian, should be barred from being appointed to head the American NIH purely because of Collins' religious views: "by the very fact that he is capable of holding such beliefs at all"!

Meanwhile here in the United States (Dawkins is British and, therefore, perhaps unfamiliar with the freedoms we assume over here) noted American author Sam Harris has also very publicly opposed Collins' nomination, again purely and solely on the grounds of the man's religious beliefs. In Harris' OpEd piece in the New York Times, he refers to Collins' religious beliefs in every single paragraph yet neither the phrase "religious tolerance" nor even just the word "tolerance" appears anywhere. Nor is there any mention of the constitutional provisions for freedom of religion and freedom of expression. It is probably wise on Harris' part to avoid any discussion or even an oblique reference to such things, for there is no way to reconcile what he and Dawkins are saying with the words of Thomas Jefferson:
No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.

But all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.
Dawkins and Harris have reached the point of explicitly rejecting one of the most basic principles of any truly democratic society. They oppose not just freedom of religion, but freedom of thought itself. For what are the "religious opinions and belief" that Jefferson refers to if not the thoughts and ideas of an individual human being? And all of Dawkins' and Harris' arguments boil down to the fact that they don't like the way Collins thinks.

Here is a point that bears repeating and repeating: to criticize Francis Collins' religious ideas is one thing, to demand that he be barred from holding a prominent position of public trust because of his ideas is a completely different matter. Another great American patriot, Thomas Paine, was as ferocious a critic of Christianity as ever lived:
Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter.
[The Age of Reason, Part 2, Chapter III]
But Paine saw no contradiction, because there is none, in also writing that
As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government, to protect all conscientious profession thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith.... Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us.
[Common Sense, January 10, 1776]
Unfortunately, there are people who strongly disagree with Jefferson and Paine, and agree instead with Dawkins and Harris.

PZ Myers, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, and an outspoken New Atheist is willing to goes so far as to question whether or not any "devout Christians" should be allowed to hold any "positions of power" whatsoever!! At the same time Myers tries to cover his bigotry by claiming that his opposition to Collins' nomination has nothing to do with Collins' religion, rather it is becaues Collins is a "science denier", although Myers cannot name one bit of "science" that Francis Collins has ever "denied".

Russell Blackford, on the other hand, nicely demonstrates that it is possible to criticize Collins' religious views and still not propose to blacklist him on that basis. Blackford does not hold back from critiquing Collins in even greater detail than Harris did in his NYT piece, but then Blackford says this:
For all that, I do not think that Collins should be disqualified from appointment as director of the NIH. First, it is unlikely that this one appointment will have significant adverse effects on scientific attempts to understand human nature, and Collins may well find ways to reconcile (at least in his own mind) his Christian image of the world and whatever findings emerge in future from the field of neuroscience. The problem is not so much that biomedical research will be hindered in any significant way by this particular appointment.

Moreover, Collins is clearly qualified for the job, having worked successfully as head of the Human Genome Project. If he were disqualified, we would have to disqualify huge numbers of other people who combine strong scientific backgrounds with religious beliefs. It wouldn't end with the directorship of the National Institutes of Health, but would apply to many other high-level roles in public policy management. Vast numbers would be ruled out of contention. That is just too unpalatable, politically, to be realistic. No doubt there comes a point where a candidate's religious beliefs clash so plainly with established scientific theories that it is untenable to offer him or her a senior post involving science policy. But a great deal of latitude must be allowed before that point is reached. To act otherwise is totally unrealistic and politically unacceptable in any society that gives (even) lip service to ideas of social pluralism, freedom of religion, etc., let alone in the religiose United States of America.
His argument in this regard could not be more straightforward. Blackford thinks that Collins' attempts to reconcile Christianity with science result in a "contrived and implausible hodge-podge." But, along with Collins' scientific credentials, which Sam Harris himself characterizes as "impeccable", Blackford takes into consideration precisely those themes of tolerance and freedom that Dawkins, Harris and PZ Myers ignore altogether, and, as a result, Blackford concludes that attacks on Collins' nomination, to the extent they are motivated by disapproval of Collins' religious beliefs, are "unacceptable in any society that gives (even) lip service to ideas of social pluralism, freedom of religion, etc."

On the other hand PZ Myers is far from being alone in his lockstep approval of the New Atheist party line. Jerry Coyne writes in his blog that it "isn't exactly true" to say that Harris opposes Collins' nomination simply because Collins is a Christian. Coyne insists that Collins professes an especially objectionable variety of Christianity (which turns out to be Presbyterianism), and not only that, but Collins espouses his bizarre Presbyterian ideas in a way that is too "public" and "vociferous" for Coyne's tastes.

Coyne also writes that "Collins pollutes science with religion", and then tells us just why Francis Collins must be stopped before he causes even greater harm:
By speaking with the authority of a scientist, by discussing science at length, and above all by describing in the same talk the evidence for evolution and the “evidence” for God, acting as if they are of similar epistemic significance, he is confusing his audiences about the nature of evidence and the nature of science.
You see, the Jerry Coynes of this world see it as their right and duty to protect us from the "confusion" that results from someone like Collins being allowed to spew his polluting, Presbyterian ideas in public. Even more "disquieting" and "distressing" and "scary" is that "Collins is an affable and genial speaker" and "a smart man", and, therefore, even more likely to cause "confusion"! For some reason Coyne neglects to mention that the reactionary fundamentalist Collins, in addition to being affable, genial and smart also plays guitar and rides a motorcycle! I mean, how confusing is that!?

But at least Coyne seems to have remembered, vaguely, something about the first amendment, perhaps from a high school civics class long ago. For whatever reason he declines to follow the logic of his own argument, only just barely refraining from explicitly opposing Collins' appointment. But it is, in my opinion, "disquieting" and "distressing" that Coyne ends with a warning to Collins. Indeed, Coyne wants the world to know that he is sick and tired of "religious scientists who insist on publicly harmonizing their faith with science." And if Collins "continues to go around giving talks" about his religious ideas, then Coyne will no longer "give him the benefit of the doubt."

Is it just me, or is there something disturbingly familiar in Coyne's squeamishness about "religious scientists" who insist on parading their polluted intellectual perversions in public (and on youtube!) where everyone can see, resulting in "confusion"? You see, Coyne is a liberal minded fellow and all, but people have to act responsibly and decently in public, and if they don't, well, then they will no longer be given the benefit of the doubt! Coyne doesn't really mind what Collins believes in the privacy of his own home, but the sight of those "religious scientists" doing, well ... whatever it is that they do, well, it just -- it just isn't right! It's distressing, disquieting, and downright disgusting. Why the next thing you know, those "religious scientists" will be demanding "special rights"!!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

John Scheid and scholarly biases in the study of Paganism

In his book An Introduction to Roman Religion, John Scheid ("widely respected as one of the most original as well one of the most authoritative historians of Roman religion" - quote taken from the BMCR review here) writes that
Since the mid-nineteenth century, when it first became the subject of specialist research, the study of Roman religion has been affected by a variety of influences. Christianity, in particular, has often provided the yardstick by which it has been judged. The fact that it had been under the Roman Empire that Christianity developed seemed to justify the generally disparaging judgement passed on traditional Roman ritualistic polytheism. It seemed to support the notion that a 'superior', 'true' religion had triumphed over an 'inferior' one, and to justify writing of the 'conversion' of the Romans.
[pp. 4-5]
Scheid then goes on to list three specific ways in which this Christianizing bias has strongly colored the scholarly study of Roman religion:

1. Roman religion was characterized as "decadent" and "cold": "This approach was very much due to the sway of German idealism." The main idea here is that Roman religion failed to meet people's spiritual needs, thus explaining the supposed ease with which Christianity triumphed. To illustrate this, Scheid quotes Theodor Mommsen's 1854 The History of Rome:
... the forms of the Roman faith remained at, or sunk to, a singularly low level of conception and insight ... [The religion of Rome] was unable to excite the mysterious awe after which the human heart is always longing, or thoroughly to embody the incomprehensible and even malignant elements in nature and in man ... The Latin religion sank into an incredible insipidity and dullness, and early became shrivelled into an anxious and dreary round of ceremonies.
[pp. 6-7]
2. Roman religion was characterized as "swamped with foreign cults". According to Scheid, this view "was pushed to such absurd extremes that even the triad of Capitoline deities (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva), the guardian Gods of the Roman state, were represented as being of 'foreign' origin."

3. Roman religion was characterized as not "pure". According to Scheid, the study of Roman religion has been marred by "the Romantic concept of closed, 'pure' cultures and by the idea of decadence -- as if true Roman religion only existed before its contamination by decadent imports from the outside." In opposition to this "Romantic" vision of Roman religion, Scheid insists that "the idea that one might be able to reconstruct a 'pure', unadulterated state of Roman religion is itself a modern myth."

Scheid is not without his own biases, though. He himself uncritically perpetuates a number of false notions about religion in general, and Roman religion and Christianity in particular. And despite Scheid's correct identification of some of the errors that others have made as a result of using Christianity as a "yardstick", Scheid's own errors have the same cause.

Briefly here are the five most obvious such errors:

1. Roman Paganism "was a religion without revelation." (p. 18)

2. Roman Paganism "involved no initiation and no teaching." (p. 19)

3. "Those who did not enjoy the same social status could not belong to the same religious community." (p. 19)

4. "It was a religion with no moral code. The ethical code by which it was ruled was the same as that which ruled other 'non-religious' social relations." (p. 19)

5. Late antique Roman Paganism was in a state of marked decline. Traditional religion had largely disappeared from most of the populace except for the elites, who had transformed it "into a kind of philosophising religion." (p. 191)

Each of these errors opens up its own quite substantial can of worms. I list them here now, in hopes of being able to return to them later, to at least make it clear that I am not giving some sort of open-ended endorsement of everything Scheid has to say - like any work of solid scholarship, Scheid's book must be approached with a critical eye and mind.

Finally here are two sizeable excerpts from Greg Wolf's BMCR review of Scheid's book (also linked to above), focussing on Scheid's "methodological charter":
Scheid's own stated methodological preference is for an historical anthropology of Roman religion. Study should proceed through careful case studies, each based on "a detailed analysis of all aspects of the ritual" in Dumézilian mode. Those familiar with Scheid's scholarly publications will not be surprised to see that anthropology takes priority over history. Put otherwise, the study of constants precedes the discussion of variables. Where this matters least is in discussion of the rich evidence for cult from the last generation of the Republic and the earliest imperial centuries. The density of evidence, especially for the cults of the City, allows rich interpretations to be developed, especially for scholars such as Scheid (not that there are many others) who are equally happy with Ciceronian theology, votive inscriptions and sanctuary archaeology....

Anthropologists are forever discovering history and historians anthropology. Many anthropologists are now preoccupied above all with the study of change, and have produced detailed critiques of the practices of writing and conceptualization that their predecessors employed to construct "ancestral traditions" and "ethnographic presents". Those of us to whom Scheid's championing of historical anthropology seems the only sane way to go beyond the catalogue in the study of Roman religion, maybe need to import this new anthropological sensibility into our own studies. It is to be hoped Scheid's textbook, with its bold methodological charter will entice many more students to engage in just such a project.

Why they hate Francis Collins

I was curious to see how the crowd over at was reacting to the Collins nomination. What I found was that many of them are in agreement with Sam Harris that Francis Collins, and apparently all evangelical Christians, should be barred from holding the position of Director of NIH. Here are a number of the comments left by registered users at Dawkins' "Clear Thinking Oasis" on teh internets:

"someone holding such irrational beliefs is not the right person to run the NIH"

Scot Rafkin:
"Yes, he should be disqualified."

"It would be nice if scientists were not influenced by the cultures in which they grew up, but sadly such is not the case for all of them. It is those strong cultural predilections that make Collins unfit to head the NIH."

Scot Rafkin (again):
"Collins shouldn't be running the NIH even if he knows the science."

"he (Collins) will always be suspect in my opinion. It's a bias on my part I know but I can't help it."

I won't belabor my disgust with Collins."

I have emailed both of my Senators requesting they vote against this nomination."

phil rimmer:
"If Collins maintains that evolution is purposeful then he sets himself out of the mainstream of scientific theory with this thumpingly unscientific, unproveable view. This is a SCIENTIFIC mark against him and can have repercussions on the decisions he may make."

"it's not just his science but his rationality that's in question."

Steve Zara:
"Francis Collins is a deluded ranting idiot who should not be allowed public use of a stapler, let alone all of USA health policy."

there's risk if this person is that nuts, sooner or later he's gonna prove to be incapable of reason in some other sphere."

"We're not suggesting a religious litmus test, but a rationality litmus test. A logic litmus test."

As the last comment especially shows, some of these folks are squeamish about what they are proposing, so they insist there is no "religious litmus test", despite the fact that their supposed "rationality" litmus test automatically, and explicitly, excludes Collins on the basis of his religious beliefs.

Richard Dawkins himself weighs in with this: "Isn't he disqualified, not by whether or not he leaves his beliefs outside the laboratory and the committee room, but by the very fact that he is capable of holding such beliefs at all?"

So what is going on here? The Dawkins gang claims to be all about science, truth, reason, etc. But really it is nothing but a cult of personality headed up by a man who modestly thinks of himself as "The most formidable intellect in public discourse." Like all creepy personality cults, Dawkins' is based on blind acceptance of things that are not true. Of these beliefs, perhaps the one most tightly clung to is that "science and religion are incompatible."

To Dawkins, Harris & Co., when Francis Collins says "I believe" that statement alone, coming from a scientist of Collins' stature, constitutes the same kind of existential threat as the one faced by the Pope when Galileo pronounced "it moves". In both cases these are things that an eminent scientist must not be allowed to say, because, well, because ..... Because if such things are said by respected scientists, then they might actually have some validity!

And so Dawkins and Harris and their ilk must lead their droogies in the solemn ritual of the "two minute hate" with Francis Collins playing the part of Emmanuel Goldstein.

The purpose of such an exercise is not to change anyone's mind, but merely to reinforce the already established conditioned response. The bell is rung, the doggies drool.

The rantings of the New Atheists are not intended to appeal to reason, but to emotion. One can only engage in rational debate with those who are capable of reasoning, and by definition, according to Richard Dawkins, those "who are capable of holding such beliefs" as those held by Francis Collins, are thereby pronounced inherently incapable of any kind of reasoning or logic.

Without blinking, much less thinking, the loyal atheists eagerly accept what they are told to accept by their dear leaders: that one of the world's most acclaimed scientists is incapable of "thinking like a scientist"!

And speaking of loyal followers, Sam Harris, who is the Lieutenant Elroy Carpenter to Dawkins' Captain Binghamton, is the guy who really got this ball rolling with his NYT op-ed piece attacking Collins. Harris has actually had Collins in his sights for a while now. For those of you who don't know, he became completely unhinged when he wrote a review of Francis Collins' 2006 book The Language of God.

In the first paragraph of the review Harris calls the book "vile". In that opening paragraph Harris, a man who makes his living by writing, actually wrote this sentence about Collins: "He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes." While spewing this kind of histrionic bilge, Harris actually proclaims that he speaks on behalf of all those who care "about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States."

In the second paragraph Harris predicts "lasting harm to our discourse" because of the evil Francis Collins and his vile book. Harris' concern for "our discourse" is getting a little creepy at this point - I half expect to hear him say something about an "international conspiracy to cause irreparable damage to our intellectual discourse and to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids". But soon Harris has shifted to the main menu: mocking Collins' religious beliefs more directly.

Collins' personal account of a spiritual turning point in his life seems to be particularly offensive to Harris and many other New Atheists. They are especially appalled at the idea that anyone could find not only beauty in nature, but the image of the Divine in that beauty. Someone really needs to sit these boys down and explain to them the difference between Atheism and Philistinism, and also maybe introduce them to Plato while they're at it.

It is important to be clear about Sam Harris' motive in his review. It is not at all simply a matter of critiquing ideas he does not agree with. Harris is consumed by a Manichean megalomania that would give Girolamo Savonarola a run for his money. In addition to multiple dire warnings about the fate of "our discourse" we are also warned about grave dangers posed to "the stature of science in the United States" and even "the fate of American society" itself. Collins is not just wrong, he is not just guilty of "intellectual misconduct", he has brought discredit on us all: all Americans "should be ashamed" that such books are produced in our country!

Sam Harris, who isn't qualified to teach a remedial science class in middle school, nevertheless believes that he is qualified to weigh in on the intellectual merits of a man like Francis Collins. The sad fact is that Harris is almost completely innocent of any understanding of either science or religion, much less how they do or nor not relate to each other. The same is true, at least with respect to religion, for Richard Dawkins who basically brags about his ignorance of the world's many different religions in his The God Delusion, a book whose title instantly reveals just how myopically ethnocentric Dawkins' grasp of "religion" is.

Harris and Dawkins share a simple agenda: to stigmatize ideas they don't agree with and to ostracize the people who hold those ideas, especially those who dare to actively promote those ideas. In doing so these "New Atheists" besmirch the good name of atheists who have traditionally been champions of religious tolerance and diversity. And the New Atheists actually help provide ammunition to the very Christians they attack, who already whine on cue and howl "intolerance!" anytime someone makes a legitimate criticism of their religion.

And that is a point that shouldn't be lost in all this. There is absolutely nothing wrong with criticizing Francis Collins' religious beliefs. In fact, many of the basic tenets of Christian theology, including (but not limited to) the Trinity, the Incarnation, Creation Ex Nihilo, Eternal Damnation, and Original Sin, are demonstrably illogical and in some cases arguably offensive. But those who can't tell the difference between critiquing a person's beliefs and blacklisting people from government jobs on the basis of their beliefs, are in no position to decry, even if they were able to recognize, the logical or moral failings of others.

Gates' arrest raises serious constitutional issues

A growing number of voices are weighing in on the freedom of speech issues raised by the arrest of Henry Louis Gates for "disorderly conduct".

An analysis piece published in the Los Angeles Times looks at whether or not citizens of the United States of America have "a right to mouth off to the police." On that point, it turns out, opinions differ.

Maureen Dowd starts off her column on the subject with the declaration "Being obnoxious is not a crime."

In this column Christopher Hitchens talks about a recent incident in which he was the target of verbal abuse by a police officer who, Hitchens points out, "was wearing a uniform that I helped pay for." He ends with a characteristic Hitchensian rant:
Race or color are second-order considerations in this, if they are considerations at all. I was once mugged by a white man on the Lower East Side of New York, and then, having given my evidence, was laboriously shown a whole photo album of black "perps" at the local station house. The absurdity of the exercise lay not just in the inability of a half-trained and uncultured force to believe what I was telling them, but in the certainty that their stupidity was helping the guilty party to make a getaway. Professor Gates should have taken his stand on the Bill of Rights and not on his epidermis or that of the arresting officer, and, if he didn't have the presence of mind to do so, that needn't inhibit the rest of us.
In a blog entry at the Huffington Post, civil liberties attorney Harvey Grossman is highly critical of the "middle ground" approach that seeks to place equal blame on Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley:
The parties are apparently going to affirm that perspective with a beer at the White House. This is a calming resolution, but it sends the wrong message about the proper role of law enforcement under our Constitution ....

Everyone knows that as prudent people we ordinarily should not get "lippy" with a police officer, but Professor Gates is not guilty of violating that maxim. He was standing up for his rights. The Constitution protects our right to protest injustice, including on those occasions when we are the victims. Gates was exercising his rights and Crowley violated them.
This is not an abstract issue. Just last Saturday night a Washington DC attorney was arrested, he claims, simply because he said, loudly and within earshot of a group of police officers, "I hate the police." Pepin Tuma claims that one of the officers took particular exception to this constitutionally protected expression of opinion, and not only called Pepin a "faggot" but physically abused him while placing him under arrest for, you guessed it, disorderly conduct.

Finally, in my opinion it is wrong for Hitchens to insist on minimizing the roll that race plays in this. Gates was justified in thinking that he was being "profiled" because he is Black. But even if it could be proved (and its far from clear how one would go about doing this) that Gates was not being profiled, he was completely within his rights to voice that opinion and to do so, in his own home, in a way that the police officer in question didn't like.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sam Harris versus Francis Collins

When interviewed for a 2006 profile in the Washington Post, Sam Harris "asked that all but the most basic biographical details be omitted from this article, even where he lives and where he studies." The profile does tell us that he was "a dropout for 11 years" during which time "he was supported financially by his mother." Eventually he managed to get a bachelors degree when he was already in his 30's. He was a frustrated writer who studied meditation, experimented with drugs, and read lots of books on philosophy. One of his meditation teachers, Sharon Salzberg, says that "Sometimes you'd want to say to him, 'What about the Yankees?' or 'Look at the leaves, they're changing color!'" But then things finally started looking up for Sam on or around September 12, 2001.

The reason I mention all this is that Harris has recently, and very publicly, questioned whether or not Francis Collins is intellectually and psychologically fit to be the next head of the National Institutes of Health. Harris is afraid that Collins' religious beliefs will cloud his thinking and/or judgement to the detriment of the future of science. You see, somewhere along the way, Sam Harris has somehow managed to convince himself that he is an expert on science, and, most especially, on how to "think like a scientist."

To his credit, Sam, at age 42, is now working on his PhD in Neuroscience. Good for him. But what was Francis Collins doing at that tender age? Was he perhaps campaigning to ban the teaching of algebra in public schools because algebra is not found in the Bible? Or maybe he was working for Pat Robertson's Presidential Campaign Committee or perhaps he was the head of the Anti-Science Studies Department at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, or something like that?

No? You say that at the age of 39 this religious nutjob, Francis Collins, was the leader of one of the teams of scientists who jointly isolated the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis? Really?!? Why, I didn't even know that cystic fibrosis was even in the Bible!

And then by age 42 Collins had also helped to isolate the genes for one form or leukemia, Huntington's disease, neurofibromatosis, and multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1. And then at 43 he was tapped to be the head of the Human Genome Project.

So how is it, then, that Sam Harris has come to consider himself as someone who is qualified to pass judgment on Francis Collins' ability to "think like a scientist"?

Teach your children (more on Gates)

I just saw this at the It's a "Memo to Black Men: What to do when you're stopped by the police." It got me to thinking ....

Under slavery, parents had to teach their children how to avoid being beaten, sold, raped, or even killed by their masters.

Under Jim Crow parents had to teach their children how to avoid being lynched, and what to do if the Klan shows up at your home in the middle of the night.

Today, in the 21st century, parents still have to teach their children how to act when confronted by the police, even, or especially, when you are obviously just being harassed for the crime of being Black.

Under slavery, though, there were people like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. Under Jim Crow there were people like Rosa Parks and Rob Williams. And today there are people like Henry Louis Gates (a somewhat unlikely addition to that list).

Colin Powell has been personally "profiled" many times, but he still says that Gates should have been more "cooperative". In a sense Powell is right. But in a sense the same advice applied under Jim Crow and slavery: the best thing to do is just cooperate - unless you're really looking for trouble.

To be Black in the United States of America is to literally live in a police state. Being white I cannot begin to imagine what that is like, and I would never encourage anyone, Black or white or Latino or anything else, to do anything other than what it says in the recommended "protocol" linked to above. But I admire Henry Louis Gates for standing up for himself. Cooperating with the police is obviously the best way to avoid trouble, but there is more to life than avoiding trouble.

Henry Louis Gates is about as far from the stereotypical "Angry Black Man" as you can get. He is an internationally respected 57 year old Harvard professor and television personality who walks with a cane. But apparently he has always had an "uppity" streak in him.

This is not just about race. It is about freedom of expression, and about freedom in general. American school children learn to admire those who refused to "cooperate" with soldiers stationed in their homes by King George. And they are even taught to admire those who taunted those soldiers and threw snow balls at them and paid with their lives (if that is what really happened).

If you are a free and equal citizen in a republic, that means the police work for you. It is usually best to treat one's employees in a dignified and respectful manner. But being impolite to a police officer is not a crime. And sometimes it is absolutely appropriate.

someone even more full of *&^% than Eckhart Tolle

O. My. Gods. I found someone even more full of shit than Eckhart Tolle! And no, it's not David Hasselhoff.

A friend recently alerted me to a critique of Ken Wilber she had seen at a blog calling itself The Zennist. The post in question does not specifically mention Wilber, or Genpo, or even Eckhart Tolle, but rather takes broad aim at "Modern Zen".

There has always been only one way to study Zen: find a real, live, flesh-and-blood Zen teacher and study with that person. The definition of a Zen student is someone who studies under the direction of a living, breathing Zen teacher. And the definition of a Zen teacher is someone who has studied with one or more Zen teachers until being given authorization to teach Zen (by one or more of those teachers).

This is not a personal opinion of mine, it is simply a well documented historical fact that this is how Zen has always been studied and taught. An excellent source of information on this subject is the book Zen's Chinese Heritage by Andy Ferguson, but the same information can be found in any well written book on Zen written by anyone who has any idea of what they are talking about (such as the many books written by Steven Heine).

"The Zennist", however, proposes his alternative to "Modern Zen" with these words of wisdom:
For all of you Zen romantics who refuse to go along with this you have only one course of action to take, continue visiting this blog and other like blogs and Internet sites that teach about something other than the moment, for example, the Buddha Mind, the Unborn Mind, the One Mind, the Dharmadhatu, the Tathagatagarbha, or the foundational Buddha-nature.
Learning about Zen from "blogs and Internet sites" is like trying to learn about oceanography by watching Bay Watch. In fact, it is worse than that, because at least when you watch Bay Watch you will see pictures of an actual, real ocean.

Please do not take my word for it, though. Distrust and verify.
It is pointless for you to praise a maiden to the ears of a young man and describe her in words in order to inflict upon him pangs of love, when you can bring her beautiful form before his eyes. Point, if you can, to her beautiful form, then you have no further need of words.
Marsilio Ficino

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Paul Manship's Diana

The Varieties and Vagaries of Religious Adherence ("Gotta Serve Somebody" Part Deux)

[This is a continuation of the previous post titled "Gotta Serve Somebody" Part Un.]

All too often religions are thought of like bowling teams: our only choices are to (a) join an existing one, or (b) start your own; and, moreover (c) you can easily tell precisely which team any given person is on just by reading what it says on the back of their shirt. According to the "bowling team model" religions are neatly separated and mutually exclusive - and there are no ambiguities or difficulties in determining a given person's religious "identity".

Fortunately religious traditions as they actually exist in reality (as opposed to the ideas about religion that exist in some people's heads) offer far more complex and interesting possibilities than bowling teams do. Most significantly, a single person can easily belong to multiple religions, as the following examples demonstrate:

(1) In Japan it is quite common for people to adhere to both Buddhism and the ancient Shinto faith. A 1996 study found that if you added the number of Japanese adherents of Buddhism and Shinto together, the total was over 50% more than the population of Japan!

(2) Followers of the Afro-Carribean religions (Santeria, Candomble, Voudoun) are very often also church going Christians. Here is a recent article based on an interview with a Los Angeles Santero (priest) who says of those who follow Santeria: "If you asked what their religion is, they’d probably not say `Santeria.’ They’d say `Catholicism’ – that they are Catholics.”

(3) In ancient Pagan cultures of North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, people could and did belong to multiple cults without any conflict or inconsistency. In fact, James Rives, in his Religion in the Roman Empire, has gone so far as to call into question to what extent one can speak of separate religions at all with respect to classical Paganism: "people thought not so much in terms of 'different religions', as we might today, but simply of varying local customs with respect to the Gods." (p. 6)

(4) In medieval China a "harmonization" movement grew up among people who believed that Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism were ultimately not in conflict with each other, and could be followed simultaneously.

(5) In Tibet during the 19th century a movement known as "Ri Me" arose, this was a "non-sectarian" movement including three of the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and also the ancient Bon religion that existed long before Buddhism came to Tibet.

(6) Many Nahuatl speaking Indians in Mexico still retain their indigenous religious practices and beliefs while also regularly attending mass. See for example Timothy Knab's fascinating book War of Witches.

(7) Unitarian Universalist churches today often serve as gathering places for Wiccans and Buddhists who are semi-formally affiliated with the UU church by way of CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) and UUBF (Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship). But even UUers who aren't Pagan or Buddhist often do not identify themselves as Christian, while many UUers do identify as Christians.

Very few scholars (or non-scholars) who venture to discuss the possibility (or, more often than not, to simply assert the non-possibility) of the existence of Pagans living in the very midst European Christendom during the Middle Ages ever make their assumptions about the nature of religious identity and adherence explicit. One of the few exceptions to this rule was Paul Oskar Kristeller, the most influential 20th century Renaissance scholar in the Anglophone world (although Kristeller himself was German). As discussed here previously, Kristeller explicitly stated in some detail in his essay Paganism and Christianity (chapter four in Renaissance Thought and its Sources) that there were only two religious options available (or at least there were only two options exercised) during the Renaissance: (1) variations on Christianity or (2) unbelief. What has appeared to some to be Paganism, Kristeller claimed, was nothing more than a combination of:

i.) "cases of conduct in public and private life that were not in accordance with the moral commands of Christianity"
ii.) "a certain amount of religious indifference"
iii.) "the steady and irresistable growth of nonreligious intellectual interests"

Kristeller assures us that this was all there was to it. Nothing to see here - certainly no Pagans, although maybe, possibly, an atheist or two. So, according to this most prestigious of Renaissance scholars, there simply was never any Paganism in the Renaissance at all, but instead there were merely the moral failings of Christians, the religious indifference of Christians, and the wandering intellectual interests of Christians. Just in case anyone could possibly miss his point, Kristeller added the explicit insistence that "the religious convictions of Christianity were ... never really challenged." [my emphasis]

Kristeller is first of all, and very obviously, assuming that Christianity and Paganism are mutually exclusive religious identities. But the assumption of the absolute, unquestioned and unproved impossibility of someone being both a Christian and a Pagan is not the end of it. Kristeller also assumes that any, even the slightest, adherence to Christianity makes one a Christian, whereas the criteria for being a Pagan, although nowhere stated even vaguely by Kristeller, are obviously far stricter (in fact, Kristeller implicitly defines being a Pagan in such a way that it is essentially impossible for such things as Pagans to exist).

As the examples listed at the beginning of this post clearly demonstrate, Kristeller's views on religious identity are unsupportable. In the cases of people who devoted their entire lives to studying Orphism, Hermeticism, the Chaldaean Oracles, the Theurgy of Iamblichus and Proclus, Magia, Astrology, Kaballah, etc, one must, to give at least the appearance of objectivity, allow for the possibility of people who harbored Pagan beliefs, thus making them at least somewhat Pagan, even if they simultaneously harbored Christians beliefs, thus making them at least somewhat Christian.

There is also the question of those who change religious identities one or more times during the course of their lives. This seriously problematizes the use of simple declarations such as "person X is/was an adherent of religion Y", for we must also be told over what time period X was an adherent of Y. How much more problematic, then, are statements of the form "everyone was an adherent of religion Y"?

Some say that even Voltaire embraced Christianity at the very end of life, although others insist that when the priest demanded that he rebuke Satan, Voltaire replied, "now is no time to start making new enemies." It is also claimed that Oscar Wilde converted to Catholicism as he was about to die, but even if true this was almost certainly just to spite the Church of England, and therefore, understandable and almost forgivable. These deathbed conversions are routinely introduced as objections when Voltaire or Wilde are referred to as opponents of Christianity (they are both hero figures for modern atheists, Pagans, contrarians and freethinkers generally).

Once we enter the 20th century there finally begins (but only just begins) to be something approaching genuine religious freedom in the West. Obviously such freedom cannot be limited to choosing one's preferred brand of Christianity, with the only other option being an atheism that still defines itself, even if negatively, in terms of the Christian "God". Genuine religious freedom must, and can only, mean the freedom to practice any kind of religion one wishes, and in particular it must very specifically include the freedom to leave and even renounce Christianity and take up some other, completely unrelated, spiritual path.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many Westerners began to "look to the east". Some of these cases are fairly straightforward conversions, as is the case with such spiritual pioneers as Alexandra David-Neel, Alan Bennett, Christmas Humphries, Christopher Isherwood, Beatrice Erskine Lane, Ruth Fuller, and Mira Alfassa.

Other cases are much more ambiguous. T.S. Eliot, for example, was not atypical of his time, or his type, in his flirtation with "the East". In fact he went well beyond mere flirtation to something more like heavy petting, but he never went so far as apostasy (unlike David-Neel, Bennett, Humphries, etc). Just how far Eliot went can be seen in his most famous work, perhaps the most famous English language poem of the 20th century, which ends with a quote (in the original Sanskrit) from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, "datta, dayadhvam, damyata", that is, "give, be compassionate, be self-controlled" -- followed immediately by the traditional close of Hindu prayers: "shantih shantih shantih". The Wasteland was written in 1922, when Westerners still felt that they could confidently take whatever they wanted from India (still a British colony) without any fear of losing their Western-ness or even their Christian-ness. In fact, since India was the jewel in British Imperial crown, some likely even believed that appropriated "hindoo" embellishments highlighted the power and glory of Western culture.

Then there is the case of Alan Watts, who at a very early age made a conscious decision to move away from Anglicanism, in which he was raised, in favor of Buddhism. By age 16 he was the secretary of the London Buddhist Lodge (founded by Humphries), and by 23 he was in New York and part of the very first circle of serious students of Zen in America, studying with the first resident Zen teacher in the United States, Sokei-an Sasaki (whose daughter in law Watts had married). But by age 30 Watts had not only returned to the Anglican Church, he had become a priest!

More recently another Englishman, named Paul Williams, not only became a Buddhist, he ordained as a monk and became a world renowned Buddhist scholar. But then after 20 years as a Buddhist he announced that he had converted to Roman Catholicism, and a rather conservative variety of Catholicism at that. We are very fortunate to have Williams' book The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism -- his own account of a personal journey to Buddhism and back again.

One of the most famous and fascinating converts to Christianity in the 20th century was, of course, Bob Dylan. Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman, the son of Jewish parents, and whose grandparents were Russian and Lithuanian Jews. Dylan famously converted to Christianity in the late 70's, and even though his album Slow Train Coming disappointed, or even alienated, or just plain pissed off, a lot of people, the single Gotta Serve Somebody was his first hit in three years and won him a Grammy. Dylan's next album, Saved, came out in 1980 and, like Slow Train Coming, was also overt in its proselytizing. But by 1983's Infidels there was little or no mention of religion any longer in Dylan's music - although some continued to hunt for hidden religious messages. In 2009, three decades after his conversion, the "is he or isn't he" question is still debated. It appears very likely that he still considers himself a Christian, but that he no longer wants to talk about it and doesn't think it's anybody's business. It also appears likely that whatever form of Christianity he adheres to is very personal and idiosyncratic, and, therefore, unlikely to be met with much approval by the vast majority of other Christians, especially the movers and shakers in the Christian music industry.

My favorite case of modern religious obfuscation is that of British Prime Minister (and American Presidential Poodle) Tony Blair. Blair apparently has been a deeply religious man since his college days, and all during this time his heart belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, but he chose to feign affiliation with the Church of England out of political expediency. Blair's official explanation for why he waited until the day after stepping down as PM to admit that he had been living a spiritual lie his entire adult life was that he did not want people to think he was a "nutter". You see, half a millennium of Anglicanism has convinced the British people that anyone who actually cares about religion must be insane.

One final example of these modern vagaries is Stephen Batchelor, whose so-called Buddhism Without Beliefs should probably, in the interests of truth in advertising, be rebranded as Protestantism Without Jesus. Batchelor is astonishingly honest in his description of how he arrived at his supposedly belief-devoid version of the Buddhadharma. According to his essay Deep Agnosticism, Batchelor was, along with other young people of his generation (Batchelor was born in '53, moved to India in '72 and ordained as a Buddhist monk in '74), originally drawn to Buddhism "as a kind of act of defiance, a kind of rebelliousness against what we viscerally disliked ... in our own culture..." But as he aged, Batchelor made peace with, as he says, "the roots of my own culture" and came to regard his youthful rebelliousness as "naive, adolescent and idealistic." But Batchelor doesn't want to take personal responsibility for his own spiritual trajectory; rather, he insists, stupidly, that the correlation of cultural conservatism to age is an inviolable metaphysical commandment: "denial of one's cultural upbringing, is not actually possible to sustain." Batchelor, then, represents a bizarre inversion of the phenomenon of those, like T.S. Eliot, who dally with Buddhism, Hinduism, whatever, without converting: Batchelor, on the other hand, wishes to remain firmly rooted in his "cultural upbringing", while yet pretending to be Buddhist.

OK - so can we put the "bowling team model" of religion out to pasture now? If we find people during the Middle Ages who profess Christianity but who also give clear signs of adherence to Pagan religious traditions, can we start to approach such cases with a more subtle and nuanced frame of mind -- as opposed to a blind, hamfisted insistence that everyone, everywhere, at all times, absolutely had to be 100% Christian? The need for a greater appreciation of the complexities of religious identity is even more acute when religious persecution and dissimulation are widespread, as was the case throughout most of the history of European Christendom.

Should Francis Collins be blacklisted for being a Christian?

Back in the day, "Atheism" always had such a reliably subversive ring to it. Atheists were freethinkers, opponents of bigotry, sworn enemies of hypocrisy. But for the last several decades a certain faction of the Atheist camp has been working very hard to distance themselves from their laudably subversive legacy and to "go mainstream". This trend has been around for a while, going back at least to James Randi and Martin Gardner.

But the "New Atheists" hardly deserve to be categorized along with Randi and Gardner, who for all their faults, are nevertheless men of intelligence, wit and genuine talent. The defining characteristics of the New Atheists, on the other hand, are their humorless bellicosity and predictable, obnoxious evangelizing.

The roots of the New Atheist phenomenon go back to the 1970's, when CSICOP, the "Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and Other Phenomena" was formed. Since that time these proselytizing atheists have focused their energy and attention on (1) influencing the mainstream media, and (2) attempting to silence and ostracize any scientist who publicly professes religious views. Sam Harris' NYT piece attacking Francis Collins nicely combines both of these, and provides a textbook example of a leading New Atheist in action. (For those who don't know, Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project who also happens to be an evangelical Christian, has been nominated by President Obama to head up the National Institutes of Health.)

Harris makes it absolutely clear that, in his own words, Francis Collins' "credentials are impeccable", and that the only reason for opposing Collins' nomination is that Collins' religious beliefs "should be of concern."

Don't get me wrong. I think that Collins', or anyone else's, religious ideas are fair game. That is to say, if there is something about Collins' religion that Sam Harris doesn't like, then Harris has every right in the world to criticize Collins on that basis.

But criticizing someone's beliefs is completely different from demanding that the person in question be blacklisted on the basis of those beliefs. Having a democratic society that is committed to freedom of religion and freedom of expression requires both the freedom to hold and express whatever religious beliefs one likes, and the freedom to express criticisms of beliefs one disagrees with. In practice, though, these freedoms are meaningless unless they are understood to absolutely guarantee freedom from discrimination based on one's religious beliefs.

Harris' indefensible "argument" is just an inversion of an old Christian canard from the days of the Enlightenment. Back then Christians routinely tried to stigmatize criticism of their religion by claiming that any such criticism, in and of itself, automatically constituted a sign of moral depravity . It was asserted at the time "that the atheist has no awareness of right and wrong, and no respect for justice", in the words of Jonathan Israel in his fascinating and monumental work Enlightenment Contested (p. 164). Today Sam Harris and his ilk similarly contend that any profession of any religious belief whatsoever is automatically a sign of an inability to "think like a scientist".

But where is the proof that Sam Harris knows how to think like a scientist? Does he, for example, provide any evidence that Collins' religious beliefs have interfered with his, or anyone else's, scientific research? Collins received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Yale in 1974, and his M.D. in 1977. He has been involved in scientific research for almost 40 years. The "impeccable credentials" that Sam Harris dismisses as irrelevant include pioneering research in the genetics behind human diseases such as cystic fibrosis, leukemia, and Huntington's disease -- and that was before he was tapped to succeed James Watson as head of the Human Genome Project.

And while we're at it, just how did the religious beliefs of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle interfere with their scientific research? Or, for that matter, Johannes Kepler, Joseph Priestly, Michael Faraday, or Max Planck?

The bottom line is: go ahead and exercise your first amendment right to criticize Collin's religious ideas all you like, but don't forget that the first amendment also guarantees Collins', and everyone else's, right to be free of any discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs.

Previously in this blog I offered a few suggestions with respect to formulating "A Pagan Response to the New Atheism". The first suggestion was:
1. Modern, western Pagans have a unique contribution to make to the critique of the New Atheists. We can point out both (a) where they are right, which is usually when they stick to the well-worn critiques of Christianity that go back to the Enlightenment and even back to classical antiquity, and (b) where they go wrong, which is pretty much any time they venture off that well-worn path. Nevertheless, in their blind hatred of everything religious, they often go overboard even in their critique of Christianity.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"Gotta Serve Somebody" Part Un

"Larvatus prodeo"
[Click here for Part Deux]
In his biography of Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Corsi claims that up until the age of 42 Ficino had been a Pagan, but at that point he experienced a miraculous conversion to Christianity. "Ex Pagano, Christi miles": "From a Pagan, a soldier of Christ." Fortunately Corsi also shares with us a clear indication of what he means by "Pagan" when he tells us further that Ficino "intended" his philosophical writings on Platonism and Orphism to be "almost as a model of the Pagan religion." However, as Ficino worked on his monumental Platonic Theology (which runs to six volumes in the I Tatti edition), according to Corsi, "a divine miracle directly hindered him" and eventually Ficino "came to fully realize that he was suffering these things through some divine influence because he had strayed too far from the Christian thinkers."

What were the circumstances under which Ficino's supposed conversion from Paganism to Christianity took place? By 1475 (the year he turned 42 - although Corsi probably has his dates wrong, for Ficino ordained as a priest in 1473) Ficino had already completed his translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and was fully engaged in translating all of Plato, as well as producing his own commentaries on Plato's writings. In addition, since 1459 he had been the official scholarch for the Platonic Academy in Florence, under the auspices and patronage of the powerful de Medici family. The Academy was modeled on the last openly functioning Pagan institution of the ancient world (the Academy in Athens, founded by Plato in the early 4th century BC and ordered closed by the Christian Emperor Justinian in 529 AD), and Ficino publicly acknowledged George Gemistos Plethon as the inspiration for this new incarnation of that iconic symbol of stubborn Pagan resistance to Christianization.

On the one hand this time in history has been described as an age of "indirection, concealment and dissembling", by Perez Zagorin in his biography of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who took as one of his personal mottos: "I had rather know than be known", and who had more than one reason for a life-long commitment to the practice of discretion. Zagorin is also the author of a book-length study focussing on the phenomenon of hiding one's true religious identity: Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution and Conformity in Early Modern Europe published in 1990. And Jon R. Snyder has just published a new book on the same subject: Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe, which is described in this way at the publishers site:
"Larvatus prodeo," announced René Descartes at the beginning of the seventeenth century: "I come forward, masked." Deliberately disguising or silencing their most intimate thoughts and emotions, many early modern Europeans besides Descartes-princes, courtiers, aristocrats and commoners alike-chose to practice the shadowy art of dissimulation. For men and women who could not risk revealing their inner lives to those around them, this art of incommunicativity was crucial, both personally and politically. Many writers and intellectuals sought to explain, expose, justify, or condemn the emergence of this new culture of secrecy, and from Naples to the Netherlands controversy swirled for two centuries around the powers and limits of dissimulation, whether in affairs of state or affairs of the heart. This beautifully written work crisscrosses Europe, with a special focus on Italy, to explore attitudes toward the art of dissimulation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Discussing many canonical and lesser-known works, Jon R. Snyder examines the treatment of dissimulation in early modern treatises and writings on the court, civility, moral philosophy, political theory, and in the visual arts.
On the other hand, Ficino and the other Florentine Pagans seemed to be pushing the envelope in terms of openly challenging Christianity. In fact, the "culture of secrecy" that Zagorin and Snyder write about only comes into clear focus in the decades after Ficino's miraculous conversion. In essence, Ficino was perhaps an early adopter of what became the commonplace phenomenon of crypto-religiosity as the Renaissance slouched toward the "Early Modern" period. In my opinion Ficino did not need to resort to his Astrological skills to see that a reactionary tide was gathering in response to the luxurient flowering of Paganism in Florence, and that he was among those who were most exposed to the coming danger.

1475 was also the year that Girolamo Savonarola took holy orders with the Dominicans. Savonarola was first dispatched to Florence from 1482-1487, but it was not until he returned in 1490 that he began to make a name for himself for his fire and brimstone preaching. The effect on the intellectual climate of Florence is described in this way by Max Horkheimer:
Under Savonarola a whole system of informants was organized in order to make all kinds of moral transgressions impossible... Savonarola even had 'police children' who helped him exercise moral discipline and carried the conflicts right into individual families.
[Between Philosophy and Social Social Science, p. 86]
Many were hypnotized by Savonarola's savage charisma and violent, demented populism, while others joined his fundamentalist mob simply out of fear. We will never know precisely why the sensitive, impressionable Sandro Botticelli joined the reactionary horde, or how many of his paintings he threw into the flames with his own hands. Also burned in those infamous bonfires were the writings of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Plato, as well as musical instruments, make-up, cards and other games, etc. It seems likely that his "conversion" and his priestly garb served Ficino well during these dangerous times.

Personally I doubt very much that Ficino was ever a sincere Christian, except possibly as a child, if then. In my opinion Corsi was attempting to thread the precarious, indeed, deadly, needle of Renaissance religious identity. Like a character in some Daniel Defoe novel, Ficino is able to save his soul and his neck through timely repentance and conversion. In this way Corsi can openly state the truth in part, and broadly imply the rest, all the while preserving Ficino's Christian reputation without denying his Paganism.

It is likely that Giovanni Corsi never actually met Marsilio Ficino. However, Corsi wrote his Life of Ficino at the behest of Francesco Cattani da Diacceto, who was "the most faithful disciple of Ficino and his successor in the teaching of Platonic doctrine" according to Eugenio Garin and Giorgio A. Pinton in their History of Italian Philosophy (p. 379). Garin and Pinton try to belittle the importance of Corsi's biography by emphasizing supposed errors in it and they also make a point of saying that Corsi wrote the biography merely to "please" his teacher, Diacceto. But consider what this implies with respect to the reality of Platonic Paganism in the Renaissance. Six years after his death, the student of Ficino's hand picked philosophical heir wishes to make a favorable impression ... by writing that the great Marsilio Ficino had been a Pagan who had strayed far from Christian thinkers!

Diacceto wrote a Panegyric on Love in the form of a letter to Giovanni Corsi and another one of his students named Palla Rucellai. The letter opens with an exhortation to honor the Gods, and Love/Eros in particular: "It is a grave sin not to have a correct opinion of the Gods; it is an even graver sin to detract anything from their majesty. Therefore, my dearest friends, you must not find fault with Love ...." [p. 157 in CTRPT, see note below] Diacceto's words closely echo those of Socrates in Plato's dialogue on Beauty, the Phaedrus [242d-e]. The plural "Gods" occurs several other times in the Diacceto's letter, including one reference to the "divine honours" that are due to "the statues of the immortal Gods." [p. 162 in CTRPT] By itself, this overtly polytheistic language could be explained away as a classicizing affectation, which it obviously is to some extent. But is that all it is?

Such nonchalant and even approving references to "Gods" are not to be found, for example, in Cardinal Bessarion's "defense" of Plato, Against the Slanderer of Plato, which was written in 1469 (the same year that Ficino wrote his hugely influential Commentary on Plato's Symposium, and four years before Ficino's miraculous "conversion"). Bessarion was writing in direct response to George of Trebizond's ferocious attack on Plato which had first appeared in 1458 under the innocuous title Comparison of Plato and Aristotle. In fact, Bessarion feels the need to explicitly state that he does not "approve" of Plato's belief in a "multiplicity of Gods" [p. 136 in CTRPT]. For some reason, and more than one explanation is possible, Diacceto, writing decades later (the two students being addressed by their teacher had not even been born when Bessarion wrote his "defense" of Plato), felt at ease not only not rejecting Plato's polytheism, but actually emulating it, at least in words.

The last three paragraphs were added later. Quotes from Diacceto's Panagyric on Love and Bessarion's Against the Slanderers of Plato are taken from the translations found in Volume One of Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts ("CTRPT"), edited by Jill Kraye. Kraye did the translation of Diacceto, while Luc Dietz and Jon Monfasani translated Bessarion.

Partial Chronology:
1433 Marsilio Ficino born
1438-1439 Plethon in Florence

1452 Plethon dies, his explicitly Pagan writings discovered and then burned by George of Trebizond
1458 George of Trebizond writes his attack on Plato
1459 Platonic Academy established at Florence (Carregi) with Ficino as head
1469 Ficino writes his Commentary on Plato's
Symposium and Bessarion writes his reply to Trebizond
1473 Ficino supposedly converts to Christianity
1489 Ficino publishes his masterpiece of Astrological Magic, De Vita Libri Tres
1492 Ficino completes his Latin translation of Plotinus' Enneads
1494 Charles VIII captures Florence, Savonarola emerges as de facto leader of the city

1497 - 1498 Savonarola excommunicated and then executed
1500 Ficino dies at age 67
1506 Corsi writes his Life of Ficino
1526 Diacetto's
Panegyric on Love written to Corsi (1472-1547) and Rucellai (1473-1543)