Echoes of Albert
Geek Antiques

Echoes of Albert, Part Two.

Where is he gay today? Princeton, then a B&B in eastern Pennsylvania

Gimme a good bookshop, five hours, and fifty bucks. You’ve got yourself a happy man.

I’m a sucker for first editions, especially those signed by the author. It’s my only real passion as a collector, though the collection itself is a slender one.

Imagine my delight at the Labyrinth Bookshop in Princeton. Of course, you’d expect great bookshops in a university town, but since Amazon undercut them all, quality booksellers are doing it tough. The university itself owns the Labyrinth, which relieves it of some of the regrettable pressures of commerce.

The name Labyrinth is just about the most blatant case of misleading advertising I’ve ever admired seen. The shop is anything but a labyrinth—neat, well-laid-out, easy to find what you’re looking for. Just as important, easy to find what you’re not looking for: the chance encounter with a catchy title, the little known work of a popular author, the deceptively authoritative staff pick. The kind of reading you won’t get from people with your browsing history also bought… Frankly, I want to know about people who don’t have a similar browsing history. As long as they’re smart.

Labyrinth excels at this. A large display table creaked under the weight of (signed, first edition) works by local authors. (Ah, to live in a town whose bookshop has a table groaning with local authors!).

A first edition, signed by the author. At least, I think it's the author.

One leapt out at me: I Don’t Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges. When I took the book to the counter, the clerk commented that the author had been getting flack from both sides of the religious fence—believers and non-believers alike. Definitely worth a read, it seems.

We retired to an inn in nearby eastern Pennsylvania to relax. Master Right and I love American B&Bs, spoiled, middle-aged fags that we are. Cameron House, in Mount Joy, fit the bill.

If one must ponder weighty matters of moral philosophy, best to do it in a nice bath.

Hedges picks up prominent atheists on matters of their own doctrine. I agree with much of it.

Atheists are generally pretty moral people—statistics show low crime and divorce rates amongst non-believers, if that can be used as a ready reckoner. And they manage it without recourse, necessarily, to rules laid down by a god. If they’re like me, they simply use common sense.

Common sense, though, is not the same as rationalism. Prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins call themselves rationalists, and tout reason as the only defensible moral guide. If everyone were just utterly rational, mankind would progress and everyone would be happier, they say.

Hedges pillories this point of view. Moral wisdom generally makes rough sense, but it cannot be wholly logical. Many rational decisions about a course of action can be utterly inhumane—economic rationalism springs to mind.

I can recall reading Sam Harris—or was it Dawkins? The thesis had me nodding about all the reasons not to believe in an unseen man-like god. But the argument lost me when it veered into using reason as the all-purpose moral reckoner.

When, for example, do we make a decision to go to war? When you can spend a few lives to save many? Some of us might agree. But Harris and Dawkins mount a case that involves calculating the likely casualties of the invaders through their own friendly fire vs. civilian casualties of those invaded. Frankly,it didn't make much sense when I read it. It sounded like interpreting a commandment. Or even playing god.

The notion that reason alone will always lead us to a good moral outcome strikes me as rather faith-based.

They don't believe in atheists, either.

Hedges points out that true moral wisdom is a combination of both the rational and the emotional. That’s what the Enlightenment was all about, no? (By the way, the Enlightenment threw up a few moral doozeys, too, like slavery.)

It’s a bit tough to pick up on what Hedges does believe should be a moral guide. From what I can gather, he goes back to something our civilization has known for a long time. Good moral judgment comes from having lived a full, well-rounded life. From a well-exercised heart, not just a limber brain.

That other Princetonian, Einstein, put it perfectly. “Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience.” Is this not why we have always looked to our elders for moral wisdom?

I’m not zufrieden with everything Hedges writes. He argues against a belief in the perfectibility of mankind, but I think he dismisses too easily our collective ability to make moral progress. Even if that moral progress falters from age to age.

In 1941, Einstein delivered a paper to a symposium on science, philosophy and religion. He said, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” Substitute the word “emotion” for “religion”, and I believe you have a great creed by which to live life. What is it about Princeton that attracts the thoughtful, and not just the smart?

P.S. If I don't agree with Dawkins, why do I still keep his Scarlet A on this blog? Hey, if Obama can differ with his preacher and still keep the faith, so can I.


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