Atheism is a Religion

Nobody’s angry at me and I’m bored. So here’s a controversial opinion: atheism is a religion.

I’ve been wanting to make this post for a long time. I hear almost daily all about how atheism is not a religion–it’s special, and unique, and boldly escapes categorization as an intellectual school. An atheist will tell you that “atheism” is not a philosophy, a set of beliefs, or an algorithm. Instead, it’s the absence of one; its adherents are those of us who’ve taken the proper-colored Matrix pill and concluded, a la Matthew Broderick, that the only way to win is not to play.

Actually, I think War Games makes a perfect metaphor. Back when I was an atheist, I would have been sympathetic to the supposition that religious people are playing a “game,” as it were, and I was on the sidelines. This wouldn’t have been an inherently negative view. If I knew any philosophy back then, I would have said people of different faiths are playing a type of tic-tac-toe in which their metaphysical, empirical, ontological, and teleological precepts are the respective X’s and O’s–and that rather than subscribing to different machinery (“W’s” rather than “O’s”), I chose not to play at all.

But atheists are wrong about this. The claim “atheism is not a religion” collapses when examined. For starters, most atheists don’t even care if it’s true or try to prove it. It’s mostly stated as a point of pride, along the lines of “Atheism is nothing like other religions.” But even that weaker claim isn’t true, as I’ll endeavor to show here. After the Averroes style, I’m going to argue against the “atheism is not a religion” thing on two fronts:

  1. If “atheism” as a concept isn’t sufficiently well-defined, then to say “atheism isn’t a religion” misunderstands what is meant by the phrase “X is/isn’t a Y” and can’t be evaluated via the predicate-in-subject principle. It would be comparing apples and oranges. But if atheism is sufficiently defined in a way that makes the statement true, then the statement is vacuous.
  2. Even if “atheism isn’t a religion” were true in the abstract, the thing most people mean when they say “atheism” is not “lack of belief in a deity or ordered universe” but “subscription to one of three particular philosophical schools shorthanded as ‘atheism,’ which provide principles regarding the order of the universe.”

Types of Things and the Predicate-in-Subject Principle

There are two kinds of philosophical questions: the ones that never get conclusively answered, and the ones that can be answered in tautologies.

This isn’t to say that tautologies are stupid. I find tautologies fascinating; I wrote my thesis on them. There’s a great quote–I can’t recall to whom I ought attribute it–that if four sets of three lions walked into the forest, and eleven lions walked out, then you shouldn’t enter the forest, and the tautology “four times three is twelve” is an important step in that argument.

It turns out that pretty much anything verifiable is a tautology, because of one of the major axioms of early modern philosophy: a claim is true iff the predicate is a property of the subject. As simple as it seems, this is actually making a fairly rigorous claim: if it can be verified that the thing said to be true of X is a property of X–a fact that would appear in a list of all facts about X–then voila, the claim is true. Now we have machinery for evaluating sentences. Tautologies like “All bachelors are unmarried” can be easily verified because the predicate is a property of the subject. Bachelors are definitionally unmarried, so the claim is true.

When we look at a claim like “Atheism is a religion,” we can evaluate it based on whether “is a religion” is a property of “atheism.” This is to say: is “religion” something that can be attributed to “atheism”? Consider the following example of a false claim:

“Atheism is a fruit.”

Being a fruit is pretty transparently not a property of atheism. Neither is fluffiness or three-sidedness. Wait–hold on–are these things properties of atheism? We need to define atheism first. According to Wikipedia, atheism is “in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is the rejection of belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.” It seems, then, that there is an argument that atheism is “three-sided”: it consists in “the broadest sense,” the “less broad” sense, and the narrowest sense.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate the level of analysis that ought to go into verifying “X is/is not Y” claims in the form “Is Y something that can be said of X?” I will make the following claims:

  1. A bachelor is unmarried.
  2. Christianity is a religion. I say this because I know many things about Christianity; I can list these things as “attributes,” and a replacement of Christianity with the predicate “contains belief in a deity” matches the reduction of religion to “belief in a deity.”
  3. Skepticism is a philosophy. It makes claims about methodologies that should be used to evaluate the surrounding world (“retain doubt, suspend judgment”); this matches a definition of “philosophy.”
  4. Suspension of judgment is a doxastic attitude. This one’s obvious and definitional.

All right, how about this one:

5. Suspension of judgment is a judgment.

This seems true too. If I choose to suspend judgment, I am judging that my current informational state is insufficient; therefore Y is a predicate of X. But now I’ve blatantly cut my own legs off. It doesn’t make any sense to regard “suspense of judgment” as a judgment in the way we mean when we say “suspense of judgment.” It has become apparent that this entire exercise is meaningless. I have played the old switcheroo game and replaced concepts like “skepticism” and “suspense of judgment” with corollaries that are true in some sense, but not a doxastic sense. This is exactly what I think atheists are doing in claiming “atheism is not a religion” is true.

Think about it this way. “Suspension of judgment is a judgment” defeats the purpose of the subject. But then again, “suspension of judgment is not a judgment” makes equally little sense. The problem is that “suspension of judgment” in the subject refers to a doxastic attitude, and “judgment” in the predicate refers to a philosophical concept. This is the problem that “skepticism is a philosophy” has, and also the problem that “atheism isn’t a religion” has.

Attitudes are not philosophies, so “skepticism” parsed as an attitude is not a “philosophy.” But “Skepticism” can be parsed as a philosophy, in which case the claim is true. When atheists say “atheism is not a religion,” they refer to atheism as an attitude–not a school, not a philosophy, but a point of view from which to regard a precept held by certain schools and philosophies. And they’re right: “atheism,” parsed as an attitude, is not a “religion” because attitudes are not religions.

But that is a stupid reason for why atheism is not a religion. It’s a technicality. It belies the point atheists are trying to make when they say “Atheism is not a religion.” It’s a statement in the same spirit as “Bicycles are not a religion”–it isn’t worth saying aloud because it’s trivial. “Walking is not a fruit” is true, but it’s vacuous; it doesn’t have the same weight behind it as the claim “A tomato is not a fruit.” Similarly, the phrase “atheism isn’t a religion” can be evaluated as meaningfully true or false only if more is established about what, beyond a doxastic attitude toward one thing, atheism means.

I’ll go even further: “atheism isn’t a religion” is evaluable in a meaningful way only if enough is established about atheism that it might as well be a religion because it lacks the noncommittal propositional stance its proponents want.

Potential Rebuttals

Even if atheists are content with “Atheism is not a religion” being true only in that silly sense, I argue they should want more out of the term atheism.

Maybe atheists are fine, in theory, with “atheism” being restricted to the “attitude”-kind of thing I’ve described above. But “atheism” as an attitude is very, very weak. If atheism is merely a way to view one precept, it doesn’t deserve the kind of scholarly categorization it has. Atheists want to retain both the lack of positive content atheism possesses, and its prominent position in discourse. But this can’t be done. There are few books about skepticism (regarding one precept); there are a lot of books about Skepticism, or even “general skepticism” towards many or all precepts (because of a positive reason why not to believe said precepts). To regard those books as Skeptic requires that we accept “skepticism” as containing some content rather than a negation of one principle. I have never seen a book by any notable atheist that is entirely concerned with the lack of substance of atheism. A strengthening of the notion “atheism” will make it a more considerable concept in this regard, but a new problem arises here. The natural way of strengthening the subject “atheism” is by viewing it as a worldview rather than as a doxastic attitude. There are two ways to interpret this steelmanned “school of atheism”: either as a “religion”-type subject, or as a “philosophy”-type subject. Both of these strengthened notions of “atheism” make the statement “atheism is a religion” very compelling.

“Okay, okay,” says Alice the Atheist. “What if atheism is a set of doxastic attitudes toward many related principles? Then atheism still isn’t comparable to a religion, but it deserves mainstream coverage.”

How many principles, Alice? A philosophical school based solely upon the precept “Walking doesn’t exist” is no philosophical school at all, but adding both “Cars don’t exist” and “The RTA doesn’t exist” comes close to making a powerful positive claim: “The set of modes of transportation is restricted to running and biking.” Strengthening “There’s no higher power in the universe” to “There’s no general order to the universe” (which requires some additional negations) implies the corollary “There’s complete general disorder on Earth.”

Alice: “What if I just suspend judgment about those things? I believe there’s no general order, and I believe that we should suspend judgment about whether there’s complete general disorder on Earth.”

But Alice, “p implies q,” “not q” and “suspend judgment about p” cannot be held simultaneously. And if you’re about to tell me you don’t strongly believe “not q,” then why give the fact that you don’t believe something strongly so much airtime?

“Wait,” cries Alice the Atheist. “I’m fine with atheism being a doxastic attitude about only one claim.”

Okay, so atheism makes no positive claims? What about modern science? Most atheists are believers in the Inductive Method (asterisk about this below). It seems reasonable that they believe in scientific conclusions at least somewhat because of atheism. If “atheism” is a principle–a razor, if you will–used to justify belief in a positive claim of this sort, then it’s not a religion, but only for a dumb categorical reason.

“Tessa, that’s just because rational people tend to come to a set of true beliefs! Atheism isn’t a principle I use to justify my metaphysical claims!”

Are you trying to tell me that mainstream atheist philosophers believe in things like evolution, induction, and logical positivism for reasons completely unrelated to their atheism? I’ve heard defenses of this before and I think they’re self-defeating. The three modern “atheist” schools of reasoning make positive claims that are at least in part based upon their atheism. This is obviously true, because the existence of God is an alternate explanation of various real-world facts. A scientist seeking an explanation for real-world facts needs to discard the theories he finds implausible, and he needs a reason to discard them–some defense of why he finds them unlikely. Do you believe in evolution, Alice? Well, intelligent design is a rebuttal to evolution–the possibility of a different cause of observed phenomena. On what basis do you discard the theory of intelligent design, if not on the basis of your atheism? (Don’t even try to claim Occam’s Razor.) Atheists lean on their atheist precepts simply in order to defend their other beliefsWe now have two choices:

  1. Atheism is a principle used to defend (insert X philosophy here).
  2. Atheism is a school encompassing (insert X philosophy here).

Alice: “I’ll take 1; I’ll settle for ‘atheism is not a religion’ being true for a dumb reason, as long as it’s true at all. I’m fine with atheism being just one claim.”

But your contemporaries aren’t, Alice. This is where I talk about the Three Schools of Modern Atheism.

The Three Schools of Modern Atheism

This is the section in which I discuss what I see as an emphatic, trifold division in modern atheism. I’m going to skip a long intro about the Four Horsemen because, well, why.

Probably the most important atheist-qua-atheist on the planet is Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of the excellent books  The Selfish Gene, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Magic of Reality, and An Appetite for Wonder. The first school of what I term “atheism” is Dawkins’s brainchild. Essentially, Dawkins’s brand of atheism–the one I’m most amenable to–constitutes a profound respect for the natural order, physical laws, and the conclusions of modern science. Reality, Dawkins claims, is mystical in some sense, by sheer dint of being so remarkable. Dawkins indicates that the absence of God makes the existence of the beauty surrounding us even more important. He emphasizes that lack of belief in God should not motivate depression about the apparent lack of meaning in the universe, because the biological basis of life imbues it with a meaning just as sacred as if it were divine. At the risk of sounding trite, Dawkins’s view is not altogether dissimilar from the notion “God is science,” or, in particular, “God is the biological interactions in the universe.”

Okay. To be fair, I am giving Dawkins a very charitable, Catholic-Lite read here. But the point, I think, stands. If he would disagree with anything I’ve said about him, it’s in large part because I’ve used Christian language (but the context, I think, makes it forgivable). The general claim I am making is that Dawkins elevates the meaning contained within biological interactions to a realm which–to a religious observer–resembles our divine.

On the whole, I find this to be pretty healthy. It is a productive atheism–an atheism that motivates action, is clear about goals, and supports at least some framework of morality (the good of the gene [cf. Selfish Gene] or more generally of the species, perhaps, being the basis). But it is definitely a religion–a way of looking at the universe in which a certain force or property guides and reigns supreme.

The second school of “atheism” is “rationalism.” Out of the three, rationalism is the school I attribute most strongly with the now-ironically-outdated moniker “New Atheism” (which is what “cool kid atheism” was before it underwent this trifurcation). Eliezer Yudkowsky and Sam Harris come to mind. Dawkins is often (erroneously, in my opinion) affiliated with this school, but his is very different. Dawkins thinks the supreme force is biology. Rationalists think the supreme force is rationality, “science” (whatever that means), or sometimes psychology. Dawkins views himself as within a closed, operating system. Rationalists view the human brain–imbued with logic and philosophical precepts–as the system. Dawkins is on the outside, looking in; rationalists are on the inside, looking out. A Christian might say of a rationalist that his mind is his God.

Rationalism has some redeeming qualities, although I regard it with increasing distaste. I left the EA movement over what I perceived to be bizarre incongruities in its moral framework. I have known rationalists to make absurd, libertine moral claims of all sorts regarding the value of humans of various abilities, races, and genders. (To be fair, Dawkins does this too, but his reasons are different–he comes at it from a biological basis; his morality, though also wrong, is more consistent.) On the bright side, rationalism is action-oriented to a laudable extent (even if I find the actions chosen to be not the most useful ones). Still a religion, though.

The final school of “atheism” is the most dangerous. I call it Humeanism, which is a joke at the expense of Humanism and a reference to the school’s founder: David Hume, who rejected science, the Socratic method, and induction. Humeanism is Greek polytheism, on steroids, minus the gods: ATOMS CLASHING IN A VOID WITH NO DISCERNIBLE ORDER. Extremely Willem Dafoe voice: “CHAOS REIGNS!”

I don’t want to waste much time describing what I call Humeanism, because–thankfully–it is going out of style, and also because it is incomprehensible. It is heavily influenced by the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and by Nietzsche. Plato wrote, “Justice is the advantage of the stronger”; a Humean might say, “Justice is whatever happens,” or perhaps “Justice will never be attained,” or maybe “Justice is a nonsense concept.”

I’m not actually sure Humeanism is a religion. The Void is God, sure, but while radical skepticism is a philosophy, it isn’t really a worldview. It buries its head in the sand and refuses to even evaluate the world. However, I don’t think any self-respecting atheists are Humeans, so I don’t have to prove it’s a religion to make my point.


The upshot, essentially, is that anyone who really thinks about being atheist–who identifies with being atheist in more than the casual way that would be better described as “agnosticism”–has to take one of the following options:

  1. Be a pariah in the literature by reducing atheism to “disbelief in God or gods,” in which case his atheism is truly not a religion, but also not anything worth writing home about. His atheism must be one single precept; he cannot expand it to any conclusions regarding “order” or “meaning,” affiliate with any of the schools referenced above, or acknowledge the existence of an “atheist movement.”
  2. Concede that atheism is a religion.

All right. The argument is now complete. I look forward to all the holes my one subscriber–here’s looking at you, beloved, proud Dawkinsian Mom–can poke in it.


Library of Babel: A New Translation

Frustrated by the ambiguity regarding the combinatorics textbook excerpt, I set about rendering a new translation of Biblioteca de Babel.

The universe (which some call the Library) is composed of a quantity indefinite—perchance infinite—of hexagonal balconies, interspersed with great chasms of open air, encircled by stout railings. From within each balcony, one sees higher and lower floors, iterating interminably. The allocation of the balconies’ interiors is unfailing: twenty shelves, five spanning each side excepting the last two; their height slightly greater than that of your typical archivist. One open side extends into a tapered foyer, which leads to the next balcony, whose setup is identical to that of the former and of every other balcony. To the left and right of the hallway stand two little cabinets. One allows a man to sleep while standing; the other permits him to fulfill his human essentials. Between them rises a spiral staircase, ascending and descending into the distance. Also in the foyer sits a mirror, which bears faithful witness to all these sights. Men are wont to take the existence of the mirror as signifying that the Library is not truly infinite: if so, whence the need for artificial duplication? I prefer to hope that these glistening surfaces configure and cultivate the infinite…Light originates from spherical orbs we describe as lamps. Two of them bridge each hexagon, crosswise. The glow they produce is paltry, but perpetual.

Like all men of the Library, I spent my youth traveling through it; I have quested after books, perhaps even after the Catalogue of Catalogues, but now that my eyes can scarcely decipher my own prose, I expect to die a mere few leagues from the balcony in which I was born. Once I am dead, an abundance of pious palms will hoist me over the railing; my tomb shall consist of the bottomless air, my body falling forever, decaying and dissolving in the wind produced by the interminable plunge. I assert that the Library is infinite. The romantics claim that the hexagonal layout of the rooms constitutes a necessary truth about the notion of space, or at least of our interpretation thereof. They reason that triangular or pentagonal rooms are unthinkable. (The mystics, in their ecstatic pretensions, profess to have seen a circular sanctum with walls ringed by the unending spine of an enormous, circular book, but their declarations are dubious, their words obscure. That round book, they say, is God.) Bear with me for the moment as I echo the universal opinion: the Library is a sphere centered at any given hexagon, with unknowable circumference.

Each wall of each hexagon contains five shelves; each shelf girdles thirty-two books of unvarying appearance; each book has four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, some eighty letters of black ink. There are letters, too, on the spine of each book, which do not betray the contents of its interior. I know that this disconnect once portended mystery. But in advance of sketching the solution—the discovery of which may constitute the crucial deed of history, despite its traumatic implications—I must call to mind a few principles.

First, the Library has existed ab aeterno. No sensible mind can doubt that fact (from which follows, immediately, the entire future of the world). A man, a flawed librarian, may owe his existence to luck or to a cruel creator; the universe, consisting of its dignified display of shelves, its unfathomable volumes, its tireless stairs occupied by travelers and lavatories occupied by men at rest, must embody the handiwork of a god. To discern the distinction between the human and the divine, it suffices to contrast these crude, quivering symbols, scrawled in my errant hand on the cover of a book, with the consilient characters inside: even, intricate, pitch black, uniquely symmetrical [1].

Second, there exist twenty-five orthographical characters. The ascertainment of this fact permitted the formulation, some three hundred years ago, of a general theory concerning the Library and the satisfactory resolution to the question that no hypothesis had yet proved capable of explaining: the formless, chaotic makeup of almost every book. One, which my father found in a hexagon on the 1594th circuit, comprised the letters MCV, perversely recited from the first line to the final. Another, much-examined in this region, is a mere maze of letters, but on the penultimate page contains the phrase “O time thy pyramids.” As you have certainly by now guessed, each straight line or linear account is vastly outnumbered by meaningless cacophonies of linguistic potpourri and inconsistency. (I know of a vulgar place in which the librarians disavow the naïve, myopic custom of parsing books for meaning, equating it with searching for sense in dreams or in the disorderly designs of the wrinkles on one’s handThey concede that the creators of the writing system appropriated the twenty-five organic characters, but nonetheless maintain that the connection is accidental and that the books, taken by themselves, mean nothing. This belief, as we shall soon see, is not altogether inaccurate.)

For some time, men believed these unyielding tomes were relics of ancient or faraway languages. Certainly, it is true that our predecessors, the early librarians, used a system of communication quite different from that which we use now; certainly, a few miles west, the local language is dialectic, and ninety floors overhead, it is unintelligible. Of course, all this still stands true—yet four hundred ten pages of immutable MCVs cannot possibly represent any language, however dialectic or vulgar it may be. Some suggested that each letter may influence the following, and thus that the meaning of “MCV” on the third line of page 71 may differ from that of the same sequence on another line and page, but this imprecise theory did not spread far. Others attempted cryptography, an algorithm that has now been widely accepted, although not in the manner its inventors intended.

Five hundred years ago, the chief of one of the higher hexagons [2] discovered a book for the most part as confusing as any other, but containing almost two pages of lines of uniform spacing. He proffered his find to an itinerant decoder, who informed him the pages were phrased in Portuguese. Others told him the sheets were in Yiddish. Before a century had passed, the language was conclusively established: a Guarani dialect of Samoyed-Lithuanian, with classical Arabic inflections. The content too was deciphered: a theory of combinatorics, demonstrated by examples of permutations with unlimited repetition allowed. These examples enabled a librarian of great genius to pen the fundamental law of the Library. He first noted that each book, however different its contents may be than those of any other, admits no variation in its parameters: spaces, periods, commas, the twenty-two graphemes. He had also adopted a theorem confirmed by every traveler: in all the vast Library, no two books are identical. From these principles he deduced that the Library is complete, and that its shelves constitute the sum total of possible combinations of the twenty-some characters (a number which, though enormous, is not infinite), or, equivalently, contain everything that can be expressed in any tongue. Everything: the diligent documentation of events to come, the archangels’ autohagiographies, the authentic catalogue of the Library, thousands upon thousands of errant catalogues, documents pertaining to the fallacies in the false catalogues, documents pertaining to the fallacies in the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, its commentary, the commentary on its commentary, the accurate account of your death, the reproduction of all books in every language, the insertion of the text of each book into that of any other, the treatise that Bede might have written, but did not, concerning Saxon mythology, the lost tomes of Tacitus.

When it was realized that the Library encompassed all books, the first response was one of soaring bliss. Every man at once considered himself guardian of a complete and clandestine treasure. There existed no problem, personal or global, whose resplendent resolution could not be found in some hexagon. The Universe seemed justified; immediately, it absorbed the unlimited dimensions afforded it by hope. Before long, men spoke often of Vindications, books of augury and apologetic, which continually corroborated the actions of each man in the Universe and safeguarded the spectacular secrets of his future. Insatiable throngs fled the comfort of their natal hexagons and scrambled up the stairs, driven by their determination to discover their Vindications. Those pilgrims brawled in the cramped corridors, traded heinous maledictions, strangled one another on the sacred stairs, hurled the duplicitous books down the columns of air, and were murdered by the inhabitants of the faraway regions they explored. Some lost their minds. The Vindications are real (I have seen two, which refer to people of the future, people perchance not fictional), but the pilgrims failed to recall that the probability of a man’s encountering his own Vindication—or even some perverse variation thereof—is effectively zero.

Some faithfully awaited answers to the ultimate mysteries of humanity: the origins of the Library and of time. That these solemn secrets may be explainable in words is tenable; if the language of the philosophers proves inadequate, the multifarious Library will have fabricated whatever unprecedented language is required, and constructed its vocabulary and syntax. For the past four centuries, men have taken up the project of exhaustive exploration of the hexagons. Some such men are official questers, inquisitors. I have observed them as they go about their duties. They arrive greatly fatigued, raving of a stairless staircase that nearly killed them. They converse with the resident librarian about the balconies and stairways. Once in a while, they will seize the nearest book and leaf through it in search of fabled words. Of course, no one expects to find anything.

When the years of boundless hope ended, crushing despondency naturally followed. The confidence that some shelf of some hexagon cradled precious books—and that those precious books were thoroughly inaccessible—seemed almost unbearable. One blasphemous cult proposed that men cease searching and instead jumble the letters and symbols until the construction—a preposterously unlikely event—of those blessed books. The authorities were forced to implement severe orders, and the sect dissolved. In my childhood, however, I sometimes saw old men who hid in the lavatories, covertly juggling metal pieces in a forbidden tumbler, feebly attempting to reproduce the disarray of the cosmos.

Others believed the opposite: that the paramount project was the removal of nonsense books. They stormed the hexagons, flashed badges—not always forgeries—flipped furiously through one volume and doomed entire shelves: to their barren, puritanical rage one can attribute the senseless perdition of millions of books. The name of their cult is anathema, but those who mourn the “treasures” destroyed by their hysteria disregard two crucial facts. First, the Library is so enormous that any reduction wreaked by human hands is imperceptible. Second, while each book is unique and irreplaceable, there forever exist—by the completeness of the Library—hundreds of thousands of flawed facsimiles, works differing by a mere comma or letter. Despite the ubiquitous opinion, I venture to suppose that the consequences of the Purifiers’ pillaging have been magnified through the horror inspired by their fanatic ways. They were beckoned by the allure of conquering the contents of the Crimson Hexagon: books smaller than the typical ones, powerful, mystical, enlightened.

I also know of another legend of that time, that of the Man of the Book. In some shelf of some hexagon, the argument goes, there must exist a book that constitutes cipher and compendium of all the rest. Some librarian has studied it, who might as well be a god. In my region the vestiges of His cult are still apparent. Many took up pilgrimage to find Him; for a century, they vainly exhausted the most eclectic courses. How would one find that covert and consecrated hexagon that housed Him? A regressive method was submitted: to find Book A, consult beforehand Book B that describes the location of A; to find Book B, consult beforehand Book C, and so on ad infinitum…In pursuits like these have I wasted my years. To me it does not seem unlikely that on some shelf of the universe sits the canonical book [3]; I pray to the abandoned gods that some man—one only, who lived (for all I care) thousands of years ago!—has studied and read it. If such honor, wisdom, and jubilation cannot be accorded to me, I wish them for others. May heaven truly exist, even if I am destined for hell. Though I be weathered and annihilated, I hope that in a moment, in a being, Your Library is vindicated.

The evil attest that senselessness is the norm in the Library, and that logic (even the humble standard of pure coherence) is a virtually miraculous deviation. They talk, I know, of the “frenzied Library, whose arbitrary tomes forever threaten to morph into one another, and meanwhile confirm, reject, and confuse all claims, like a babbling god.” These words, which decry disorder while simultaneously engaging in it, are known to prove the poor taste and hopeless vanity of their speakers. In essence, the Library encompasses all syntactical structures, all permutations of the twenty-five orthographical characters—but not one instance of true nonsense. Of the many hexagons over which I preside, it is feckless to note, the premier volume is titled “Thunder, combed”; another, “The plaster cramp”; still another “Axaxaxas mlo.” These concepts, at first blush incoherent, doubtless are possessed of validation cryptographical or allegorical; such validation consists in words and ex hypothesi is formed already, somewhere in the Library. I cannot assort the letters “dhcmrlchtdj” without that the Library has witnessed them and endowed them, in one of its tranquil tongues, with a monstrous meaning. No syllable may yet be voiced that is not replete with tenderness and terror, that does not spell in some language the powerful name of a god. To speak is to invoke tautology. This useless, long-winded letter already takes form in one of the thirty tomes upon the five shelves of one of the innumerable hexagons, and its refutation too. (Suppose some quantity n of potential languages use identical vocabulary. In some, the symbol ‘library’ summons the notion ‘collection of ever-present, enduring hexagonal galleries,’ but the word ‘library’ means bread or buttress or what have you, and the six words by which I have defined it, those too have different meanings, so I must ask, reader: are you confident you understand my language?)

My methodical writing has distracted me from the current condition of my fellowmen. The certainty that all has been written incenses and invalidates us. I have heard of districts in which children bow before the books and bestow bestial kisses upon their pages, yet do not know how to interpret even one character. The hysterical epidemics, the controversies, the expeditions which inexorably lapse into banditry, have decimated the population. I believe I mentioned the suicides—growing in number each year. Perhaps my anxiety and advancing years deceive me, but I suspect that the human species—the only species—will soon perish while the Library persists undying: illuminated, isolated, infinite, immobile, incorruptible, intimate, ineffective, laden with precious volumes.

I have just written the word ‘infinite.’ I have inserted this adjective not for rhetorical convention; instead I say it is plausible that the world is infinite. Those who deem it finite claim that in some distant district, the balconies and passageways and staircases—impossibly—stop, which is absurd. Those who envision it without bound forget that the number of possible books is bounded. I shall hazard a guess toward the solution of this ancient paradox: the Library is countless and cyclical. If a timeless tourist crossed it in any direction, he would observe after centuries that the same volumes would reappear in the same incessant disorder—which, repeated, would constitute an order: the Order. In my solitude, I rejoice in so elegant a hope [4].

[1] This original manuscript contains no numerals or capitals. Its punctuation has been limited to the comma and the period. Those two symbols, the space, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet constitute the twenty-five basic symbols enumerated by the anonymous author.

[2] Before, there existed a man for each three hexagons. Suicide and sickness of the lungs have decimated this proportion. A memory of unmentionable melancholy: at times, I have traveled many nights through corridors and burnished stairways without encountering even a single librarian.

[3] I reiterate: it suffices that a book be conceivable for it to exist. All that is excluded is the impossible. For instance: no book is simultaneously a staircase, though doubtless there exist books which discuss and deny and demonstrate this prospect, and others whose structure resembles that of a staircase.

[4] Letizia Alvarez Toledo has observed that the vast Library is wasteful: strictly speaking, merely one volume of the standard size would suffice, printed in nine- or ten-point typeface, which would consist of an infinite number of infinitely fine pages. (Cavalieri, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, claimed that all solid matter consists in the superposition of an infinite number of planes.) The handling of this silken almanac would not be facile: it is imaginable that each sheet would unfurl into indistinguishable others; the unfathomable central page would have no verso.

Reflections on Reading the Commedia (Again)

Below is an expanded version of my description of how I felt about the second greatest story ever told, four years after first finding it, at the conclusion of a year-long seminar. Quotations italicized, from Durling or Borges.

I have never felt impostor syndrome like this, but that is how it goes with me and Dante. I remember with great clarity what I felt as I closed the Mandelbaum translation for the first time. Less than a dram of blood was left me that was not trembling. I thought: How many other people, upon reading this text, knew instantly that they had to follow it forever? For that was, indeed, what I knew immediately. There was nothing else in the world more worth doing.

I have been obsessed with that beatific vision since I was 18, and I have often felt like a casualty of the poem—as if it is unfortunate that I feel this way. I have been angry, frustrated, desperate, doomed, as if to be inclined to follow Dante is an unlucky genetic predisposition, as if I have been wronged by the vaulting cosmos. I keep telling myself that I cannot study the Commedia forever. In a more nascent field, I might be able to emerge as exceptional, but if I were to jump into the ring with even just those Dante scholars currently alive, no dice. My other great literary love, Borges—himself one of the greatest Dantisti—wrote hundreds of stories, each, ironically, finding a new way to say that there is nothing new to say. Would he have been driven to such desolate creativity, I wonder, had he never heard of Dante Alighieri?

“Dante, let’s settle this, you and me,” I found myself thinking each year of my undergraduate education. Like a parking lot fistfight. Mass has ended, go in peace. I waited for the omega, for the catharsis, following him in and out of classroom after classroom, each reading more confusing than the last. Dante, ever circuitous, compelled me through his own obstacles: into the academy, to Christianity.

It would be absurd to claim that my travails this year have solved the Comedy for me, and that is the end of it. There are still so many moments I don’t understand: the placement of various individuals, the greater intricacy of Hell than Purgatory or Heaven, the arrangement of the outer spheres of Heaven regarding deficient forms of the virtues, Virgil’s role. Why the omnipresent allegory of the Montefeltros? Why Lucia? What methodology is there to his strategic placement of friends and foes, pagans and believers, in the various spheres of damnation and paradise?

To me, the study of the Commedia is often about sorting, and to read the poem through discussion with peers has provided me ample opportunity to conduct research. I have learned that everyone has his “guy” in the Inferno, the one with whom he most sympathizes—or rather, whose trials most affect him. The usual suspects include Francesca, Cavalcante, Piero della Vigna, Brunetto Latini, Vanni Fuci, Ulysses, Guido da Montefeltro, Count Ugolino, and Frate Alberigo; I have been trained to discern which of the condemned will appeal most to which of my friends. I have learned to characterize Dantisti by which of the questions Dante asks in PAR 4 they more seek the answer for: the apparent unfairness of punishing the inconstant for circumstances outside their control, or how to understand phenomenological veil rendering the placement of souls in heaven. I have learned to draw conclusions from who it is that they think “made the great refusal,” Celestine or Pilate, and whether they prefer Sordello or Statius, Buonconte or Manfred. To some extent, I now know what the Commedia is; my remaining questions concern why and how. To have heard the battles my classmates picked with Dante along the way taught me their whys and hows, and helped me to discern my own. Therefore, I have the firm conviction that this is how the poem is supposed to be read: over a year, over biweekly discussions, a slow climb up the mount. What my classmates have done is to confirm the existence of that secret society that is the Dantisti: dark symbols, white flourishes, Borges’ “iron scimitar.” In the Library, we seek the Crimson Hexagon. I feel no longer alone, because, as Dante did, we are meant to make the pilgrimage together. As he was, so I am among friends.

The moment, I think, that makes the most sense to associate with the way that I have felt about this experience is that of Dante’s witness of the divine flower. Beatrice disappears; he asks Bernard where she has gone; he looks up and sees her “making herself a crown by reflecting from herself the eternal rays.” Though he is distraught by her absence, he is thoroughly consoled by the fact that although she is very far away, he sees her clearly.

This moment struck me as a particularly odd one. To me, it seems that Beatrice is absentmindedly messing around, amusing herself, in an intimate moment not meant to be seen by Dante. It is a strange moment—a moment in which she is not focused—for Dante to have chosen to look at her. Yet he describes it, even though he too must be confused by her behavior, even though he must be pondering the “why” as he dutifully relates the “what.” Throughout the poem, Dante is baffled by the beauty he observes, but no too baffled to give a detailed overview of its likeness, if not its metaphysical content. The way I feel about this room, the people in it, the project we are now concluding, is like Dante looking up at Beatrice in that intimate vignette. Before, he asks Bernard for an explanation. Then he witnesses the mystery. There is an overwhelming joy, first. Then a confusion, and then a faithful reproduction of events. Finally, a kind of peaceful resignation abounds. This is not an exhale of hope, not a Lasciate ogne Speranza, but a “Stay awhile.” And as he calls, so I will—even now, I recognize the signs of the ancient flame.

An Evaluation of the “Women in STEM” Public Interest Program

There are going to be two parts of this post. In the first, I will put on my apologist hat and give a very sympathetic defense of “It is difficult to be a woman in STEM,” relying largely on my own experience (and meant to convince people with no experience being women in male-dominated fields). In the second, I will explain why we need to go about having a public interest in women’s being in STEM very differently than we are currently doing. In that section, I’ll open by nitpicking with the definitions. I am going to claim that regarding the lack of women in STEM is a problem is self-undermining: it relies on, or at least implies, a principle that is contradictory to what the thrust of its message is supposed to be. This requires me at least to suspend judgment on whether the proportion of women in STEM is a problem; I’ll go further and claim that it is not a problem. There is a problem, which is related (but not identical) to “not enough women in STEM.”

Why We Need More Women in STEM and Other Male-Dominated Fields of Academic Research

What I describe in the title–the “women in STEM” public interest program–can be more generally paraphrased as follows: There is a significant public interest in increasing the proportion of women in historically male-dominated research fields. Many of these are STEM, but some aren’t (e.g. philosophy, war studies); I’ll focus on STEM here. There is a generally accepted algorithm for how to increase this insufficient proportion of women:

  1. Support the women already in these programs to prevent high woman attrition.
  2. Encourage women who have interests/abilities in other fields to try male-dominated fields.

My Own Experience

It is obvious to me that 1 is a good initiative. I don’t just support Initiative 1 because it’s nice–logically, I have to support 1, to avoid my own program of study’s relying on a self-undermining argument. To want to be a brown woman taken seriously in Field X commits me to wanting brown women to be respected in Field X (or at least not disrespected); it is requisite that my future plans include an interest in opening my field to the contributions of people like me.

But I also support Initiative 1 because it’s nice. No, the women in male-dominated fields don’t need reinforcement and warmth qua women, but as a brown woman the majority of whose undergraduate courses have been in theology, mathematics, and philosophy, I can confirm that the feeling of striding into a lecture hall where nobody looks like me is unpleasant.

People bristle to hear this. I’ve heard STEM women especially–more than any other demographic–shrug off the claim “it’s no fun to be the only woman in this course.” This noncommittal attitude strikes me as bizarre. I understand that being perceived as laid-back is a boon to one’s personal reputation, but that’s not the same thing as being a doormat. From my experience, being the only woman in a mathematics or materials science course makes others immediately perceive you as either the smartest person in the room or the least smart. Some are almost hostile; you’ll occasionally get parsed as an affirmative action admit to your program. But some reach the almost less sensible conclusion of “Wow, she’s the only woman here? She must be brilliant,” and chase you down to help them with problem sets.

The behavior of male students in STEM departments toward their women peers is a mixed bag. I’ve been reached out to a lot by male students who are low-income or ethnic minorities for advice and support, and how wonderful this network is cannot be overstated. But pointing out that I’ve been and seen women on the receiving end of condescension from men (almost ENTIRELY students, not professors) is not a social justice crusade, not unreasonable, and not “anecdotes rather than data.” This has happened to me a lot. (To be fair, I tend to dish it right back. That is probably not great, but when you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes.)

There is an unsavory thing that I have to talk about even though I’m sure I’m going to get flak for it (if anyone actually reads this blog). People don’t talk about this fact as much as they talk about the condescension thing or the being parsed as an affirmative action admit thing. But it is a big problem: male students often make amorous advances toward and solicit romantic advice from their women peers.

Of course, context is everything here. I’ve given solicited and unsolicited advice of this kind to my math friends (in which case it isn’t weird), but I’ve also been approached in this regard by math people I barely know (in which case it’s very weird and in such a way that it’s clear the salient catalyst is that I am a woman). There is a two-step factor, I think, that contributes to the fact that STEM women have to put up with way more of this than they should.

  1. The ratio of men to women is very high.
  2. Almost all the women in the field are socially adept. The proportion of men that have strong social skills is much lower.

2 seems outrageous to some extent. Prima facie, women across disciplines don’t have higher “social skills” on average in the sense I’m referring to here than men do–this isn’t EQ, just normal behavior. But I’ve collected enough anecdotal data that it cannot be a fluke. Even if 2 is unpleasant to admit outright, people seem to be aware of it, which, I think, is why the general response to “Male students in Field X harass their women counterparts” is “Boys will be boys!”

Even assuming that’s an okay response in the abstract (not going to get into that here), it isn’t true in this case. I have a humanities double major, woman-dominated, in which I’ve taken half my classes and never been the recipient of garbage like this. What the interlocutor at the end of the above paragraph means is “Boys [in Field X] will be boys [in Field X].”

This claim relies on 2 above. Men in the science disciplines have worse social skills than their women peers. Here’s a possible explanation. Young adult men and women are socialized by their friends. Women in the sciences tend to be friends with other women from across disciplines; men in the sciences tend to be friends almost exclusively, or at least mainly, with men in the sciences. There is a bizarre generational problem in which men in the sciences are being socialized by men who were never properly socialized themselves. That’s two degrees out from normal socialization! They end up thinking they are socialized, whereas what they are actually being is trained: trained to interact in the sphere of “Men in Field X” and not outside it. This still doesn’t explain how the problem originated (why was the First Man in Field X not properly socialized?). But that’s sort of irrelevant, and at least somewhat believable by dint of examining the kind of characteristics a math education selects for: drivenness and intensity, being able to work alone, exceptional intelligence (which often travels in hand with arrogance), microfocus, and an excess of free time (which, to be fair, is easier to have when you’re not spending time doing social activities).

To tell women that the men in Field X who have made them uncomfortable are exculpated by reason of being typical men in Field X is to tell women, “If you continue in this field, you will have to put up with this forever.” That same principle stands for the other untoward experiences STEM women have: condescension, resentment, unprompted idolization. No wonder the attrition rate is so high!

The rest of the argument is simple. The treatment of women in STEM has largely to do with the fact that women are viewed as a novelty in STEM. The obvious way to make women not a novelty in STEM is to have more of them.

A Position Reversal

From what I’ve written above, there is a claim that may follow that I wish to do away with.

Proposal 1: “The reason women don’t go into STEM is because women in STEM are mistreated. Therefore, we should get more women into STEM.”

I didn’t defend the first clause in my argument above, and I don’t think it’s necessarily true that that’s the reason women don’t go into the fields. But assuming it is true, putting more women into STEM (to be presumably mistreated) is a rather roundabout way of solving the problem!

Let’s look at things more generally. For what it’s worth, I hear almost daily the battle cry, “More women in math!” I only occasionally hear “More women in philosophy!” and I never hear “More women in theology!” (And I’m not suffering from systematic cherry-picking here. The other thing I study is philosophical theology. If people were saying these things, I’d be hearing them.)

This strikes me as odd prima facie. Proportionally, there are even fewer women in philosophy and theology than in math and physics. (The War Studies ratio is probably the sharpest–especially given that the general discipline of history is woman-strong.) But apparently, that doesn’t automatically merit the proportion’s appearing, to the public consciousness, to be a problem.

Occam’s Razor is helpful here. I have no trouble believing men (probably somewhat by nature and somewhat due to socialization) are categorically more interested in studying war than women are. This–not sexism–strikes me as the reason that War Studies is a male-dominated field.

I also have no trouble believing men are generally more interested in theology, especially because in many denominations, there are fewer vocations for women in theology. Again, therefore, I’m not worried that the climate of the theology research field is disincentivizing women to enter it. The very reasonable explanation, which doesn’t require me to believe in some degree of conspiracy or systematic bias, is compelling enough for me. “Being a problem” and “needing a solution” are different, but the War Studies and theology gender ratios do neither.

But get this: I also have no trouble believing men are generally more interested in mathematics than women are. Or physics. Or chess! You ever met a female grandmaster? Me neither. But I don’t care all too much. Being a GM is impressive and all, but I don’t lie awake thinking “We need a woman chess champion!” because, while I enjoy watching a strong player, chess doesn’t strike me as a summarily important human exploit. This “sensibility toward importance” is orthogonal to visibility. I’m glad we have women veterans, even if they get less TV airtime than women news anchors (who are comparatively less important to society, I think). “We need a woman astronaut/CEO/life-saving firefighter” sounds much more reasonable to me than “We need a woman DJ/winning horse jockey/exceptional poker player.”

Yes, this is a subjective metric, but there is something absolute about it. The people who disagree with me on whether we need a woman grandmaster will disagree because they think chess is important to human society, which further proves my point that whether something is important is a vital consideration to whether we should make increasing women’s access to it a central goal. This sensibility–that I don’t care if unimportant things are male-dominated–is, I claim, the reason people care about women in math but not women in theology. Most Americans with whom I interact don’t believe in God and therefore don’t care about theology. Many Americans, however, have come to believe that “the future is STEM.”

Therefore, I will make the following claim. A low proportion of women in Field X is not concerning to me unless:

  1. I have very good reason to believe that proportion diverges significantly from what I know about women (If 5% of the people studying opera singing were women, that would strike me as in further need of an explanation, given what I know about the grand history of women in opera; women have primarily been the people made famous by opera), or
  2. I think Field X is important to humanity. (I think women should do important things. So sue me.)

On at least the second front, I think most people agree with me. People want women (and men) to do important things. Some of these are obvious (exonerating the wrongfully convicted, creating inventions that make life easier, raising morally upright children), but some (apparently, mathematics) aren’t. This brings us to the question of why people think math is important–of why, despite that we might reasonably say the gender ratio is not a problem (because men are more interested in math), it still needs a solution. Let’s look at a couple more proposals.

Proposal 2: “STEM fields are more lucrative; therefore, women should be in them to make more money [and making money is the salient “importance” fact].”

But the drive for “women in math” extends especially to “women professors in math.” Professors in math don’t make more money than professors in history. (Maybe per capita they get more project funding, but that’s just because the math academy is smaller than the history academy.) Not all women who go into STEM will work for Google. People know this, and they still encourage women to go into STEM.

Proposal 3: “STEM fields are just harder than humanities fields! Techies are smarter than fuzzies! Therefore, STEM fields are more important, and we should be pushing the best and brightest women into them.”

This proposal strikes me as correct, but not true: I think it’s dumb, but I also think a closeted belief in it is the real reason people think we should have more women in math.

“Techies work harder than fuzzies” is a compelling claim because it is easy to believe there’s more preparatory work to be done before generating original research in the sciences than in the humanities (“you can BS a history paper, but not a problem set”). Even that weaker claim isn’t true (for starters, techies forget that fuzzies have to learn a billion languages), and the people who say it are usually the people who blatantly misinterpret the historical context of a primary source and then get upset they didn’t get an A on their history essay. STEM fields are not harder than humanities fields. Your field is as hard as you make it. Show me a trivial history “essay assignment” and I’ll show you ten trivial combinatorics “results.” Just as not every history thesis ever written is transcendent, not every mathematics paper written is a proof of the Ending Lamination Conjecture.

But people do think STEM is harder–I hear too many casual remarks to that effect to believe otherwise. So why, then, do people think that?

There is a very obvious demographic reason people would think it. If you think men are smarter than women, then the fact that most men go into STEM fields, while most women go into humanities fields, suggests that STEM is for smart people.

Yes, you heard me right. I’m claiming that people who indiscriminately want “more women in STEM” are subscribing, at least implicitly, to the notion that men are smarter.

You might think I’m putting the cart before the horse here. Are there other possible explanations we should discount first? If there are, I can’t think of them. It seems naive to think that the fact that the majority of humanities majors are women and the majority of STEM majors are men is unrelated to the public perception of STEM as more difficult. But fine, I’ll provide an argument for why I think the reason STEM is regarded as harder is that more men do it. (Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that men are smarter than women. I’m merely explaining why someone might conclude that.)

I said earlier that a low proportion of women in Field X is not concerning to me unless (1) it’s incongruous with what I know of women or (2) the field is important. A low retention rate of women in Field X is always concerning to me, because the easiest explanation for it is systematic rather than dispositional. If I hear that 10% of the people who go into SkyZone are women, I’ll think, “Huh, women must not like jumping as much as men do.” If I hear instead that 50% of the people who go into SkyZone are women but only 10% of the people still there after an hour are, there are two possible reasons that come to mind:

  1. Women get tired from jumping more quickly than men do.
  2. Women are being mistreated in SkyZone.

This is perfectly analogous to the two possible reasons for a high attrition rate for women in mathematics:

  1. Women are not as good at math as men are.
  2. Women are being systematically forced out of studying mathematics.

Being a woman math major myself, I am at least somewhat sympathetic to 2 (although I’d rephrase it in a less “CONSPIRACY”-sounding way). But if I weren’t a woman in math, I’d think it sounded ridiculous–even whiny. By Occam’s Razor, I’d be more likely to believe 1. I could show all this using Bayes’ theorem–my posterior probability for 1 is much higher than it was before I knew about the low retention rate. A low proportion of women in a field means women won’t do something; a low retention rate suggests that they can’t.

Note, of course, that “Women are not as good at math as men” does not imply “Men are smarter.” But if we know only that women are not as good at math as men, and not that men are smarter, whence the reason to want more women in STEM? The evidence shows women are not as good at basketball as men. What do we do about that fact? We ignore the WNBA–the exact opposite of calling for more women in basketball, which would be parallel reasoning.

The WNBA case is a strong analogy here, because it is similar to the women-in-STEM case in all respects except for the assumed link to intelligence. It is uncontroversial that women are not as good as men at basketball. This is because men are stronger and faster. This difference, however, is not regarded as requiring redress, because basketball isn’t “important.” The reason women aren’t as good at basketball is trivial: we aren’t as strong as men. Being a pro basketball player is associated with the attribute “strong” because we see strong people do it. Being a professional mathematician is associated with the attribute “smart” because we see “smart” people (overwhelmingly men) do it. “Smart” itself is a post hoc label–it isn’t quantifiable in the “How much can you deadlift?” way. I know I’m being heavy-handed here with my use of Occam’s Razor, but the following syllogism strikes me as so simple. We can establish the following complete argument to get to “more women in math”; if I didn’t know that Premise 2 is flawed, I’d believe it myself.

  1. Men are smarter than women.
  2. “Smart” is the unique relevant difference between men’s and women’s mathematical experiences.
  3. Men succeed in math more than women do.
  4. Therefore, math requires intelligence.
  5. Things that require intelligence are important.
  6. Therefore, math is important.
  7. More women should do important things.
  8. Therefore, more women should do math.

This is dangerous reasoning–the very altruism of the claimed feminist goal of women in STEM shows itself through this argument to be baldfaced sexism.

I’m not saying “women in STEM is a bad goal.” I’m rather saying “Lowering attrition rates of women in STEM is a much more coherent goal than wanting to draw more women into STEM.” I hope you can believe this; I think we should tackle the problem from the attrition end–if only because by saying “more women in STEM,” we may merely be saying “more women should do the things men do–because the things men do are better.”