Conrad Black: Off the Rails


Conrad BlackI generally read Conrad Black‘s columns for their entertainment value, but I also read them for the language. Black is the best tosser of pithy epithets since Spiro Agnew*. And like the former US VP, he’s a pompous git who puffs up his intellectual feathers like a pigeon in heat – that puffery of sound and fury that signifies nothing more than an ego he has to bring along in its own carriage. He is very amusing that way.

Now to be clear, I have little respect for Black’s uber-right ideologies. We are at polar opposites of the political spectrum: as a self-appointed spokesperson for the entitled one percent he annoys my modest socialist and humanist values.

And because  I also value loyalty to my native Canada, I detest that he gave up his Canadian citizenship in such a cavalier fashion. (I suggest strongly that he be tossed out of the country for that and because he’s also a criminal: he was convicted of fraud in the USA and served jail time for it. Criminality is another similarity he shares with Spiro Agnew, although the circumstances differ.)

But being a criminal doesn’t mean he can’t write. Damn, but he often turns a mean phrase and, even if I disagree with his haughty self-absorbed and pretentious politics, I like to read him because he wordsmiths brilliantly. Most of the time. Sometimes, of course, he’s just that pompous, self-righteous git we all loathe.

This past week, Black outdid himself in his NatPost column and took that pomposity and git-ness to a new level.

The piece was titled “The shabby, shallow world of the militant atheist,” and in it Black railed like a frothing Irenaeus against the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps Black – who professes to having having his his prison sentence made endurable through his faith – is planning his new book; a 21st century version of Against the Heresies.

Black writes…

Nor can the atheists ever grapple plausibly with the limits of anything, or with the infinite. They rail against “creation” — but something was created somehow at some point to get us all started. They claim evolution debunks Christianity  (though all educated Christians, including Darwin, acknowledge evolution) — but evolution began somewhere. When taxed with the extent of the universe and what is beyond it, most atheists now immerse themselves in diaphanous piffle about a multiverse — but the possible existence of other universes has nothing to do with whether God exists.

I love that phrase, “diaphanous piffle…” although it exposes his ignorance. I was disappointed, because if nothing else, I always thought Black was well-educated. Clearly his education in cosmological concepts and quantum mechanics is less than that of the average scifi reader. Why must there be anything beyond this universe? Why can’t this be everything?

And as for evolution: of course it started somewhere but there is no reason to believe it is the result of divine intervention. We’ve created organic molecules in the lab; we’ve found them on comets and other moons. Life just got its start through nothing more exotic than chemical reaction. And who claims evolution debunks Christianity? The creation myths are in Genesis, not the New Testament. Such claptrap.

Richard Dawkins tweeted in response to Black’s column:

Spot the factual errors, illogicalities and failures to understand.

There is an unmistakable irony in the former felon Black lecturing others on morality and ethics.

Black isn’t just firing off his bon mots for the usual self-aggrandizing fireworks; he’s engaging in theological fisticuffs, but in doing so he has become slipshod in his history:

Apart from replicating the worst traits of the dogmatic theologians, it reminds us of the tendency of people to fill an official absence of God with the elevation of man in His place. This was the practice of leading pre-Christian Romans, eventually elevating themselves to the status of gods and compelling public celebration of it.

I cannot help but be reminded of the Monty Python skit, What Did the Romans Ever do For Us?
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 …but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

Pre-Christian Romans didn’t elevate themselves as gods. it’s not like they woke up one morning and said, “Calpurnia, today I think I’ll be a god. A sky god. Is my blue toga clean?”

Yes, the Roman Senate did deify some of their later emperors, adding them to a rather large and growing pantheon; a practice that ended when Christianity was adopted as the official state religion. Before that, Romans were quite eclectic in adding deities and practices to their beliefs (i.e. Mithraism).

The Roman cult of imperial deification isn’t as simple as Black makes it out to be; it was also in part the outgrowth of ancestral worship and gave divine authority to the rulers – making emperors the supreme spiritual leader, not simply the political one. It played a significant role in politics, diplomacy and in how Rome ruled its subject peoples.

In reading their philosophies and histories, it’s clear that, while the Romans treated lack of proper obeisance to the emperor-god as treasonous, they didn’t treat their multitude of other gods and goddesses with the same fervour. It had a lot to do with subject recognition of Rome’s superiority and authority.

The Roman Empire declined and eventually collapsed only after it embraced Christianity. Whether you accept that this religion was at least one cause, if not the major cause of the downfall, it’s hard to ignore the association between the accelerating decline of Rome and the growing political importance and role of Christianity in its affairs (See Gibbon, Vol. 1, Chap. 15 and 16).

The intolerance early (and indeed some branches of modern) Christianity showed towards other faiths and deities, against other ideas and towards open, intellectual debate, is eerily similar to the rigid attitude fundamentalist, militant Muslim groups like ISIS and Al Queda show today towards anything outside their limited sphere of understanding (and it is a VERY small sphere). All fundamentalists of any religion provide outstanding examples of how damaging and dangerous religion can be even in the 21st century

Read the history of Hypatia to see how intolerant early Christianity was – and then read about the lunatic Westboro Baptist Church and compare ancient and modern religious intolerance: not much difference.

The theists defend their basic position fairly easily and only get into heavy weather when they over-invest in the literal truth of all the scriptures — though the evidence for veracity of the New Testament is stronger than the skeptics admit, including of Christ’s citations of God himself: “And God said …”

So what “veracity” does Black so desperately defend? Black doesn’t tell us; but his cryptic comment leaves me to conclude he sides more with the literalists than those who treat the Bible as a combination of allegory, mythology, poetry and scripture. His view, too, is distinctly Christian-centric throughout as if no other religion mattered.

Black tries – unsuccessfully – to argue that old chestnut that atheism is just another faith:

In general, something a person believes and can’t prove is supported by some measure of faith.

Let’s be clear: atheism isn’t a faith: it’s not even a proper doctrine or an ideology: without a fixed set of beliefs everyone accepts, who can even clearly define it? Atheists come in a wide variety of types, from the casual to the militant, from conservative to socialist, rich to poor. Their only similarity is that they don’t believe in the supernatural or divine.

Atheists I’ve read support their views not by blind faith, but by reason, logic and evidence. And many atheists also have a profound respect for the spiritual – if by spiritual you mean an internal activity or event (like meditation) that provides contentment, peace, refreshment and calm; not some external, supernatural angels-demons-orcs-ghosts balderdash.

And not all skeptics are atheists. There are religious believers deeply skeptical of government, medicine, science and generally of reason. Some skeptics merely skeptical of the authority or divine nature of scripture.

One can argue that everyone is an atheist when it comes to deities outside their particular religion. As Stephen Roberts noted:

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours…

I would also argue that many Buddhists who follow the purer schools like Zen are atheists. They clearly have a religion, replete with moral and ethical teaching and many scriptures, but they practice without the need for supporting gods and the supernatural.

Skeptics have such a wide range of views, from mild doubt to overwhelming dismissal, that it isn’t possible to generalize on their attitudes without reducing everything to a caricature. There isn’t a single work, or a single writer that every skeptic agrees with any more than there is agreement among Christians what is historically accurate in the Bible.

Look, for example, at Bart Ehrman, a professor of Biblical studies and early Christian history, who made the spiritual journey from fundamentalist to agnostic. He said:

I moved from being a committed church-going Christian to become an agnostic. I no longer know whether God exists. But if he does exist, I’m convinced that he is not the God I was raised to believe in, a God who intervenes in history on behalf of his people to answer their prayers and to save them from their pain.

Black continues his attack:

But they badly overreach when they attack the intellectual underpinnings of Judeo-Christianity, from the ancient Judaic scholars and the Apostles to Augustine to Aquinas to Newman; deny the existence of any spiritual phenomena at all; debunk the good works and cultural creativity and conservation of the major religion; and deny that the general religious message of trying conscientiously to distinguish right from wrong as a matter of duty and social desirability is the supreme criterion of civilization.

Again, most of those atheist authors I’ve read accept that Christian intellectuals and philosophers have valid points and ideas they respect – you don’t have to agree with their direction, inspiration or conclusion to respect their thinking. One can read Montaigne, for example, or Machiavelli for their insights and wisdom without sharing their religious beliefs.

Where he can’t think of a point, he resorts to shabby ad-hominem attacks and name calling like some vulgar, local blogger. That’s always the last resort of the weak-of-thinking.

It’s not to difficult to deconstruct and debunk Black’s column, and I could go on at greater length but it’s beating the metaphorical dead horse.


* Agnew is famous for calling the media the “nattering nabobs of negativism:”

Said Agnew while speaking to the California Republican state convention on September 11, 1970: “In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H Club — the ‘hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.’”

But the words were penned by William Safire, Agnew’s speechwriter and later etymological columnist for the New York Times. The sentiment still resonates among politicians, local to national, who often find the media negative, myopic and overtly biased.

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