Oilima Markirya: A Poem by JRR Tolkien

This poem was written by JRR Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, in the early thirties. It is not very well known, perhaps partially because it was written in one of his invented languages, Quenya. Nonetheless I find it rather haunting; it is a lament that describes the experience of a hypothetical last living person, before the cities and civilisation is lost to the waves. Luckily, it’s been translated into English. Make of it what you will.

Oilima Markirya: The Last Ark

JRR Tolkien

Who shall see a white ship

from the final beach steering

the vague phantoms

in her cold bosom

like gulls wailing?

Who shall heed a white ship

like a butterfly fluttering

in the flowing sea

on star-like wings

the sea foaming

the foam flying in the wind

the wings shining white

the light slowly fading?

Who shall hear the roaring winds

like the many leaves of the forests

the white rocks growling

in the gleaming moonlight

in the dwindling moonlight

in the falling moonlight

like a corpse-candle

the storm grumble

the abyss move?

Who shall see the clouds assemble

the Heavens bending

upon crumbling hills

the sea heaving

the abyss yawning

the old darkness

from beyond the stars

sliding down and collapsing

upon lofty ruined towers?

Who shall heed a broken ship

on the many black rocks

under shattered skies

a discoloured sun blinking

upon bones gleaming

in the last dawn?

Who shall see the last evening?


In response to yesterday’s blog post about Christopher Hitchens’ polemic, God Is Not Great, in which I spoke about atheism “beginning” with Socrates, I was informed that in fact, Socrates was not an atheist after all. Oh dear, perhaps I should have taken philosophy class after all. How could I get such an important detail so utterly wrong?!

Well, I didn’t of course. I never once said Socrates was an atheist, and whether he was or not is manifestly not the point. To quote Hitchens again: “Even though he was not in fact an atheist, he was quite correctly considered unsound for his advocacy of free thought and unrestricted enquiry, and his refusal to give assent to any dogma.” That was my essential point. Socrates’ methods championed free enquiry, preferred naturalistic explanations for weather and other events, and never once submitted to unverifiable “truths”. Socrates’ primary weapon was the “gentle but relentless” process of questioning and questioning again; it is this process even today that forms a methodological basis for scientific enquiry and all nonreligious thinking about the natural world. In any event, Socrates had no particular reason to believe in the gods with any certainty; it is a matter he left unresolved and was happy to. It was an irrelevant question for him. As Hitchens writes: “For one thing, why would “they” bother with the tedium of human existance…all attempts to read the gods’ intentions, such as studying the entrails of animals, are an absurd waste of time.” What mattered for Socrates was truth seeking, not truth knowing, and there are only so many ways by which one can come to know the truth. Studying entrails is manifestly not one of them. As Hitchens asserts, Socrates was not interested in any dogmas or certainties; his whole philosophical scaffold was centred upon the notion of ignorance and contingency.

On this basis we can postulate that atheism begins with Socrates. Although Socrates never came out and said “I do not believe in the gods”, his methods severely questioned and undermined all Athenian orthodoxies. All this he accomplished without modern science, which goes to show that the basis of atheistic thought lies not in the nuts and bolts of physics, but in common standards of rationality and reasonableness. Even without a knowledge of the Big Bang, Socrates was able to demonstrate that a dogmatic and certain view of the universe and its origins was an unsound preposition. Today, with our vast (although by no means complete) understanding of the Universe and its workings, modern atheists are able to go one step further and point to natural explanations that do not require us to invoke any sort of divine creator at all. The natural world can be explained and understood satisfactorily without recourse to the gods. Although this does not “prove” that God is non existent (that is a moot point) it demonstrates that the probability of God’s existence is pretty small, and that invoking him in any way as an explanation is redundant. And that’s just “god”; and undefined “prime mover”. How religious people claim to know him mind is a whole nother matter, one Socrates would have scoffed at.

God Is Not Great

God Is Not Great

Christopher Hitchens, Allan and Unwin 2007

Who can wheel all the starry spheres,

and blow over all land, the frightful warmth from above

Be ready in all places and all times,

Gather black clouds and shake the quiet sky

With terrible thunder, to hurl down bolts which often

Rattle his own shrines, to rage in the desert, retreating,

For target drill, so that his shafts can pass

The guilty by, and slay the innocent?

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (quoted in God is Not Great)

For most of its history, humankind has been driven by circumstance and ignorance to explain natural phenomena in terms it could comprehend and understand. Only recently have we as a species come to the realisation that these explanations were flawed in many fundamental ways. Since Western philosophy decoupled itself from religion and allowed thought free reign, “natural philosophers” (now known as scientists) have relinquished the assumption that an omnipresent, omnipotent being should be postulated as the source for all existence. Instead, they have disabused themselves of any such haughty presumptions, and concluded that the best way to go about understanding the Universe is by first acknowledging our own dismal ignorance of its splendours and its fundamentally counterintuitive processes. If there is a god, in other words, he (it?) could not be considered to be human like in any meaningful sense at all. To put it briefly, god was made in the image of man, not the other way round. And if you think M-theory points to a god, then your god is certainly not the Islamic one, or the Christian one. Indeed, he would be unlike any god thought up by humanity in any time throughout its history, and that is the central point: the human species, by dint of its incredible intellect, has been able to uncover the secrets of a Universe that is far more hostile, unforgiving, strange, abstract, bizarre and counterintuitive than any pre scientific society was able to imagine. The truism holds: truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

If you take anything from Christopher Hitchens’ brilliant polemic, God is Not Great, let it be this idea. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with mythology, imagination, fantasy or speculation: whole engaging genres of fiction are devoted to the power of the mind to imagine things that don’t have any ontological being in the empirical world. But lets treat mythology as just that: stories, often riveting, strange, and culturally precious, but stories nonetheless. When we start assigning some sort of ontological value to mythology, it becomes religion, and this is the dangerous leap of “faith” that violates all principles of intellectual honesty in our scientific age. To put it otherwise, if we ascribe to god(s) some notion of objective, if abstract existence, we commit the “sin” of hubris. Knowing what we now know about the Universe and its functions, no reasonable person should have the scruple to seriously forward the “god hypothesis” as a realistic explanation for the origins of the Universe. There is no evidence for it, and what evidence there is points toward a disinterested, if incredible and overwhelmingly beautiful, Universe. As Hitchens writes “Doubt, skepticism, and outright unbelief have always taken the same essential form as they do today. There were always observations of the natural order which took notice of the absence or needlessness of  a prime mover.”

It is this kind of intellectual honesty, this willingness to question assumptions, to abstain from participating in the farce that is “faith”, to continually seek new knowledge while comprehending the depths of your own ignorance, that so impresses Hitchens. It all began with Socrates, says Hitchens. At the prospect of execution for insisting radical thought among Athenian youth, Socrates attitude is summed up thus: “The point is that Socrates was mocking his accusers in their own terms, saying in effect: I do not know for certain about death or the gods – but I am as certain as I can be that you do not know either.”  Atheism begins with Socrates, and so does philosophy, which in Hitchen’s words, “…begins where religion ends”. Only the pursuit of philosophy wherein all knowledge is held to be contingent and wherein any knowledge we do possess is clearly derived from observation, experimentation and certain standards of rationality is reasonable. Religion holds to none of these standards and yet still, even today, 25oo years after Socrates, demands preferential treatment. Its adherents profess access to “another way of knowing”, to some ill conceived window into the “divine”. Alas, this is just nonsense. There is no esoteric field of knowledge available only to those who “accept” Jesus Christ or “humbly” submit themselves to the divine tyranny of Allah. Socrates himself would be appalled at such dismally vacuous apologia, and like Socrates all reasonable people living in modern, secular societies should be appalled as well.  All those stories are manifestly man-made, and as Hitchens says, “it shows”. Hitchen’s book is a wake up call, especially to those of us who profess no faith but still assume it is somehow disingenuous to criticise people of “faith”. Stop defending religious stupidity, stop kow towing to the lies and misrepresentations spread not only by fanatics but by believers of any kind. And for goodness sake, stop assuming faith is some kind of virtue. It is fundamentally opposed to all that rationality and humanism stand for: it subverts and warps our ethics, it makes fools out of intelligent individuals, it provides the excuse and often the motivation for violent acts, and it is divisive by its very nature.

No more excuses.