Steven Weinberg 2002 Humanist of the Year

By Weinberg, Steven | The Humanist, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Steven Weinberg 2002 Humanist of the Year


Weinberg, Steven, The Humanist


A little more than a year ago we might have been discussing such issues as the attempt by religious zealots to thrust intelligent design into public school curricula, the banning of research on therapeutic cloning, the limitations placed on embryonic stem cell research, and the cultural disagreements over astronomers carrying on their work on such "sacred" mountain peaks as Mt. Hopkins in Arizona and Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

But then the world was shaken by the suicidal terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, against civilians in the United States. And it has continued to witness terrorism by suicide bombers orchestrated against Israeli civilians. Most commentary on these horrors has very properly focused on the harm that was done and the evil that brought it about. Here I would like to concentrate on a different aspect of the attacks of September 11 in the United States and the random attacks by Palestinians against the Israeli people: the fact that these attacks are suicidal.

Such suicidal attacks contain a strong religious element: a denial of those purely human values that we celebrate as humanism and an expectation of some kind of transcendental paradise. Historically, actual religiously motivated suicide has been rare, I suppose for obvious Darwinian reasons. Religion has from time to time motivated suicidal attacks--for example, the attacks on U.S. ships by kamikaze pilots during World War II, which were bound up in the Shinto religion and emperor worship, and the attacks on Sunni Muslim government officials in the thirteenth century by members of an Ismalite sect of Shiites in what is now Iraq and Iran. But it hasn't been common.

Suicide is merely the most extreme form of something that has historically been quite common: religiously motivated self-destruction, including withdrawal from the world and rejection of its good things in hopes of a heavenly reward. In Roman times the priests of the goddess Cybele ritually castrated themselves with stone knives. In Christianity, Jesus enjoined his followers to leave their mothers and fathers. This started a tradition lasting centuries of monks and nuns withdrawing from the secular world--such as the hermits in the deserts of Egypt who lived nasty lives, wonderfully satirized in Anatole France's book, Thais. And although not as extreme in their self-flagellation, monks and nuns continued to withdraw from family life, from the enjoyment of the good things of the world, sacrificing their lives to their faith. As Keats described the monk in his 1820 poem "The Eve of St. Agnes":

 
   His was harsh penance on St. Agnes' Eve: 
   Another way he went, and soon among 
   Rough ashes sat he for his soul's reprieve, 
   And all night kept awake, for sinners' sake to grieve. 

Dava Sobel put it even more poignantly in her 1999 book Galileo's Daughter, in which we learn how Galileo's two illegitimate daughters became nuns--Suor Maria Celeste and Suor Arcangela--apparently willingly living cloistered lives from their late teens onward, without knowing love, family life, preserving themselves as brides of Christ.

And for what? For what are these nuns and monks, for hundreds and hundreds of years, sacrificing themselves? For a god who, if he existed and welcomed such sacrifices, wouldn't be worthy of our respect.

Such self-sacrificial behavior isn't restricted to the Western religions. The Pall scriptures, written down some years after Gautama Buddha's death, tell how Gautama left home, where he had been the privileged son of the ruling family of Sakya, to seek enlightenment. On the night he left the palace, his wife and his little boy were asleep and he wouldn't say goodbye to them because it would distract him from his search for enlightenment. He was trading their happiness for his spiritual advancement. After his enlightenment, he returned as the Buddha and was welcomed as a hero by everyone in Sakya--except for his abandoned wife who wouldn't greet him.

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