S.T. Joshi – Fright and Freethought

May 28, 2010

S. T. Joshi is a leading authority on H. P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, and other writers, mostly in the realms of supernatural and fantasy fiction. He has edited corrected editions of the works of Lovecraft, several annotated editions of Bierce and Mencken, and has written such critical studies as The Weird Tale and The Modern Weird Tale. His award-winning biography, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, has already become a collector’s item.

But critical, biographical, and editorial work on weird fiction is only one aspect of Joshi’s multifaceted output. A prominent atheist, Joshi has published the anthology Atheism: A Reader and the anti-religious polemic, God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong. He has also compiled an important anthology on race relations, Documents of American Prejudice.

In this episode of Point of Inquiry, Robert M. Price talks with Joshi about Lovecraft and how his writings were an impetus toward Joshi’s atheism. Along with discussing Lovecraft’s views on religion, Joshi shares his own views on the subject. He reveals his thoughts on religious writers as well as the “new atheism.” He explains what horror and fantasy literature have to offer the non-religious, and how it can in some ways take the place of religious writings.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 28, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Robert Price. Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. 

My guests today on Point of Inquiry is prolific author and critic S-t Joshi. Until just a few years ago, as he was known mainly for his research on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, he’s almost single handedly brought Lovecraft, once denigrated as a mere pulp writer into the literary mainstream. A student of the great Dirk W Mosig Jocie has long since succeeded him as the world authority on Lovecraft and his work. He has restored to us the original texts of Lovecraft, free of copyists, errors and ham handed editorial intrusions. His purified editions are available from Arkham House publishers, as well as in a series of annotated collections of Lovecraft’s work from Penguin. Then he widened his scholarly scope to deal with the work of Robert W. Chambers. Arthur Machen Fmr. James and the weird fiction genre as a whole. In the last decade or so, sensing there were yet more worlds to conquer, Jocie has become a leading Freethought author as well. To recite the titles of his books would take the whole length of the program and then some. But his major books include H.P. Lovecraft A Life. The Rise and Fall of the Khufu. Lou Mythos. The Weird Tale God’s Defenders and Why They Are Wrong. H.L. Mencken on Religion and the Agnostic Reader S.T. welcomed a point of inquiry. 

Glad to be here. You’re certainly an atheist. And Lovecraft was an atheist and you’re a big guy. Lovecraft fan, as am I. Were you an atheist before you read H.P. Lovecraft or was it his arguments that convinced you? 

You know, it’s been so long that I can’t quite remember the sequence of events, but I think it’s something like this. I think the best I can say is that I was sort of a passive atheist before reading Lovecraft and specifically, of course, reading his letters where most of his atheist writing occurs. The fact is that I grew up without any religious training whatsoever. My family came here from India when I was five years old and my father was well, he called himself a secular Hindu. By that, it means that he did not wish his children, my two sisters and myself, to be indoctrinated into any religion, even Hinduism. And in fact, I. I know probably less about Hinduism than than many others do. So we were not dissuaded from believing in any religion, but we were simply allowed to make up our own minds on the issue. Now, I first read Lovecraft’s fiction about the age of, I don’t know, 12, 13, 14, something like that. And the atheistic element of that fiction is not always easy to attain. It’s just. And at that age, you’re just reading them for it, for being entertaining stories. But the more I started studying Lovecraft, the more interested I became in him. And I remember that even in high school, I tried to get copies of his selected letters. I believe three volumes had come out. By the time and I had to go to some lengths to get those volumes, there were they were not easy to find. Then I couldn’t go out and buy them. I didn’t have any money. So I think my mother got them for me from interlibrary loan from Indiana University or someplace. And as I was, I was sort of a passive atheist. I had not been trained in any religion. I remember a couple of books in my library or my family’s library that, you know, sort of elementary introductions to religion of various sorts. And I briefly browse through these. And maybe they also left me so preposterous that I but I said, well, this is a pretty pretty foolish. But it was really all I think really only when I read Lovecraft letters that I said, wow, this is you know, a few of them really seems to be the thing here. I remember that that great letter of 1918 where he simply announces that the Judeo Christian mythology is not true. And that really got me going. 

So, yeah, I think I think Loughrea was certainly a strong impetus, in my opinion. 

Lovecraft calls himself, as I remember, a materialist, a rationalist center. But do you remember does he ever call himself a humanist in the sense Suy batted around that a with secular humanism and so on? 

I don’t think so. Lovecraft, you know, evolved this idea of cosmic indifferent ism, the idea that. Perverse doesn’t care a whit about the human race or anything on this planet. We are simply insignificant insects lost in the vortices of space and time. Now, to say that doesn’t mean that human beings can’t care about each other. And an author of Lovecraft keeps dancing around that subject. Sometimes it’s to his advantage to say, oh, well, we are all, you know, motes in the sunbeam. Here today, gone tomorrow. Nothing we do matters. It makes no difference. But then on the other side, what especially when he’s talking about ethical matters or political matters or sociological matters. He said, yes, human beings are obviously important to themselves. And here certain things we can do to make life on this earth better. 

But I don’t ever recall of specifically declaring a humanist stance in that straightforward sense and sets an odd one, because in some ways it would seem to magnify human importance in a way he could never broke. But on the other hand, is viewed by the importance of scientific curiosity and art and so on. He would be a humanist in that sense. But I guess it’s just sort of fun to wonder if, you know, you can claim a New York Gand Lovecraft, of course, notoriously was something of a racist. Should that matter to modern readers, you think? 

Well, I think it should matter that anyone is a racist because it is really a bad thing to be a racist. I mean, let’s be let’s be blunt about it. It really is the worst black mark on LifeCare’s character. I mean, he had a few other black. He didn’t treat his wife particularly well and may have been a little too emotionally reserved. 

But of course, that was a product of his upbringing and and character and temperament. 

But racism is something that he should have known better about, in my judgment. 

It’s an intellectual failing more than a moral failing for him, because at that time he was living in an age when the intellectual pillars of racism were being systematically knocked down by biologists and sociologists and anthropologists. And he simply didn’t listen to that evidence. It was the one area of his thought where he was not open to new evidence. And that astounds me. I think the element of racism was so important to him as a sort of a psychological bulwark that he simply couldn’t give it up. At the same time, I think the Vehbi racist element of his thought is logically separable from the rest of his thought, particularly as ageism. Racism has no particular bearing on his notions of the absence of God or cosmic indifferent ism or any of his many, many other themes in his thinking. So to that degree, we can simply segregated and say, well, if that unfortunate aspect of his thinking, it’s too bad. 

But many other aspects of his thought are very valuable and remain viable in spite of that. And his fiction, which also has racialist elements in it, subdued in some cases, is not diminished because of that racism. 

Enough that I’m trying to defend him on this point. I think you put very well the character of the intellectual failing the rather than the moral one in his particular case, given what he says about it. But D.F., would you say that inferences in the shadow over innsmouth, where the horror is inbreeding and inter may ethnic intermingling, that the the deep ones really stand for the Polynesians who are there Cloke in the story? I get the impression there and in several others it’s this cultural purity thing. I remember Jimmy Carter during his campaign made the terrible mistake of addressing some situation in, I think, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, some where he said, well, I can see why the residents there want to maintain the ethnic purity of the neighborhoods, this before Bosnia and all that. But my Lovecraft’s seemed to have the idea that these other cultures and groups may have heritage just to be proud of. But what a shame. If they were all to to enter Mengel and lose their distinctiveness. I have to admit, I don’t consider that racist, though it’s probably just moot nowadays. In our world. But is it fair to say that that’s what motivated his horror of mixing in in this fiction anyway? 

Well, I think Lefkoff is using this element of cultural segregation, as it were, really an excuse to cover over the fact that he simply didn’t like certain types of foreigners. He obviously did not ascribe to the notion that immigrants, particularly when they came to die states, should retain their cultural heritage. In fact, it was widespread belief among many people that immigrants should, in fact, willingly. Give up their cultural hybrid heritage and become good Americans. When they came over here, so love was not unusual in that point of view. I think he just had an extreme conception of the evils of cultural mixing. He simply thought that a Jew simply could not mingle on any level with an Anglo-Saxon. Certainly not a black person with an Anglo-Saxon. 

But I think all that was kind of a mask for his own personal discomfort at these figures. 

And that is Frank and and boldly put. It’s refreshing to hear. Are there any just switched from Lovecraft as some other writers on other things? Are there any religious writers whose work you respect even when you don’t agree? Like, what do you think of G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis with whose work I believe you initially became familiar in childhood through the Narnia books? 

Well, yes, almost. 

It’s almost an embarrassment now, personally for me that my my taste in reading and specifically reading fantasy literature, which then gravitated to horror literature, began with The Chronicles of Narnia. I was about 10 years old and really wasn’t interested in reading. All I want to do is play sports with my with my friend, my little friends and my older sister, Nalini. So, you know, it’s getting to the point where you need to start reading books. And so she dragged me to the public library again. We had so little money, we didn’t have money to go buy books. So she took me to the public library and sat down, start reading something. And somehow. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s her advice or how. But I did find the Narnia Chronicles very readable and imaginatively stimulating. Now, remember, I know very little about Christianity at that time. I mean, I do know almost nothing. So all the Christian symbolism in those books simply went over my head. I just read them as entertaining chronicles of fantasy about 15 years later. I tried reading them again and then was simply appalled at the heavy Christian moralizing going on there. So I couldn’t stomach them then. But to that degree, I do owe something to see as Lewis. But quite frankly, I think his religious work and particularly cheeky gestures are so full of absurd and obvious fallacies that I cannot even begin to respect them. They are so obviously defending untenable positions that it just bad to witness them. I cannot think of a single religious thinker whose work I really respect. Not that I’ve read a great many of them. But, you know, I tried reading some of William F.. Buckley is a religious that works mostly is autobiographical writings about why he is a Catholic and all that. Those are complete rubbish. You know, you just go on and on. Richard Swinburne, even a distinguished professor of theology at Oxford. 

His work is such a tissue of fallacies that it’s amazing that anybody can believe it. I have yet to find a religious thinker whose work I can respect. 

Yeah, it is amazing what what passes for religious philosophy and what people get away with their unexamined assumptions, you know, with Lewis. The first I think the first religious book I’ve read was his Screwtape Letters, which is very clever and and very different from the other books. But I have never read the Narnia books. And I did see the first of those movies, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I guess it was I just felt slammed across the face when they go into this thing where Asselin has to die because this little punk Pangasinan and some darkish daffy ursu in the earth. And of course, it only makes sense if you just hoil in this massive atonement theology thing. I thought if you don’t know this, what sense can this make? I guess maybe my my window for appreciating that had long before long ago. 

If you read it to a kid you might get it, but you might find some enjoyment in it. 

But again, even then, if you if you’ve already been inducted into Christianity, that becomes so obvious. It is only, oh, you know, ignoramus like myself who could have enjoyed it on upon the pure level of narrative. 

Why? Oh. I just love your book, God’s Defenders. If you have a lot of good stuff to say by way of solid refutation of the various thinkers, you discuss one by one. But it’s also acerbically hilarious as well. I recommended. How would you summarize this Kosma system, this philosophy that underlies Lovecraft’s horror stories? 

Well the philosophy underlined the horror stories. I wouldn’t say it’s quite identical with Lovecraft’s own personal philosophy, but. But there are obviously points of. Connection and similarity. 

What Lauffer ever saying in the horror tales is that we are indeed. And standing by a grain of sand, which I think was Voltaire’s metaphor back in the 18th century, that these cosmic entities, but by some strange chance, descend upon on earth are really symbols for the inscrutability of the universe. And the fact that a scientific rationalist could still maintain that the universe is inscrutable is of some interest. Loughborough was aware that even though science and human knowledge had progressed to a certain degree, we really hadn’t gotten very far. Fact, I remember a great line from one of Lovecraft’s mentors, philosophical mentors, the writer Hugh Eliot, in his book Modern Science and Materialism, expressing this exact point. He says, In terms of of human knowledge, he says, we are like a mouse scratching on the side of a mountain. A tremendous metaphor. And look after pretty much feel the same way. So that what Loughrea wanted to express in his fiction was human fragility in the face of the vast vortices of space and time. Unlike science fiction, which I think is why a lot of science fiction writers don’t like Lovecraft. Unlike science fiction, space is not a great area of waiting to be explored by humanity. It is a source of terror because it is so vast and so unknowable. 

And so when these monsters descend upon us, it just emphasizes the BP fragility even of our own existence on this earth, let alone elsewhere in the universe. 

Yeah. They’d just come and down through the telescopes. Essentially, human science can know about quasars. But the minute you know anything about the Mir, there’s this huge ocean that no one can know as far as we can tell and so on, Socratic humility thing. And that becomes pretty frightening after a certain point. You flip over to know what should be your Jacqueline which your hide side, but to another side. What do you think, Elisa? Atheist writers. The New Atheists are the Four Horsemen, dammit. Dawkins, Harrison Hitchens. Are you familiar with any of those guys? War. What do you think of their or their work in their approach. 

Oh yeah. Oh yeah. In fact, I just wrote about three of them. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens in my new book that’s coming out later this year from Prometheus books called The Unbelievers. I think the subtitle is The Evolution of Modern Athie ism. I have high respect for all of them, although I think that there are some small problems or fallacies in some of their writing. But I think on the whole they are on target. And I, for one, applaud their militant eighties. And I think we really need much more of that. I think religious thinkers and religion in general have had a an easy ride for many centuries. And it is only now that this new brand of ism is speaking up and basically ripping the shreds off of their of their attire. The problem with this kind of militant Athie ism is effectiveness. Is it really have and I have to confess, I’m not sure it really has all that much effectiveness there. There is the tendency to to preach to you, to your own choir. There’s a doubt as to whether you’re even reaching even those who are sitting on the fence, let alone those who are already convinced of their religious views. It’s very hard to persuade someone to give up a view that has become so enmeshed in their own psychological well-being. And I understand that. Nevertheless, my own combativeness leads me to to applaud their adventures. 

He has so much. Again, people are just there is given too many credits for given too much slack. I often think of how you’ll see a news report where some problem is going on, some social difficulty in the urban neighborhood and the talking to Father So-and-so about and he’s very savvy and sophisticated on this issue, but he’s a Catholic priest and I wish they’d say, oh, one last question, if you know mind, father. Are you telling me the Virgin Mary ascended into heaven bodily without Dindo? Do you really believe that? You know, I’d love to see what would happen. 

Oh, but the press the press is so terrified of offending against religion that the silly lie would would just never happen. That’s right. Yeah. It’s his religious right. How would everybody practically into Grantham respect they simply don’t deserve. 

And it’s just puzzling. How. How do you overcome that? 

That’s not good for ratings. Do you think there’s any more really to say on Athie ism or are we beating a dead santoor, I’m afraid. 

Yeah. The arguments that even people like Dawkins and Hitchens have uttered are pretty much the same thing. But Bertrand Russell was saying half a century ago or that love premising Long of the Golden Bad or that the that Thomas Henry Huxley was saying a century and a half ago. The arguments have gotten a trifle stale, and it’s because religion simply doesn’t have any new argument. It’s not as if I mean, the atheist arguments are so sound and so overwhelming that religion has nothing to stand on and they’re not coming up with the arguments. The best they can do these days is that that religion is some sort of a psychological comfort. And I don’t doubt that it is. But what is the value of a comfort that’s based on a falsehood? I don’t. I don’t get that. So the point is. Yeah, what more is there to say? It could keep on saying the same things over and over again. And maybe sheer repetition will have some effect. In spite of the apparent dominance of religion in our culture, I actually think that much of our culture really has become quite secular. I mean, if if religion is treated with kid gloves, it also is oftentime itself marginalized in conventional culture. The media just stay away from religion as far as they can. They can help it. And to that degree, that means that religion has itself taken a backseat. You need to gain a certain historical perspective to understand how overwhelmingly dominant religion was in all of society. Up to about the middle of the 19th century. And only then did it finally start start backing off. So to that degree, atheist now can lead perfectly, you know, unencumbered lives. I have never been bothered by anybody, you know, about my theism. I have lived in conservative parts of the country and nobody has been a bit of attention to my absence of churchgoing. Maybe others have have had their difficulties, but I personally have not. So to that degree, I am entirely able to marginalize religion in my own personal life and live without paying any notice to it. 

I think the sociologist Richard Fan said that as society becomes more pluralized and people believe in all different religions and then intermarry and so on, that religion is reduced to the status of a kind of a private fare, like a hobby or even just a sort of a second generation ethnic allegiance. It really isn’t you anymore, but it’s there vestigial. And now that seems to me to be certainly happening. 

Yeah. I mean I mean, the one thing where I think we could make some advances is for atheists and agnostics and secularists to band together for political influence. Let’s be honest. The religious right has been pretty shrewd about wielding its political power and we have nothing really comparable to that. And they’ve made some headway and we need to battle them on their own front. And that’s difficult. I mean I mean, rounding up atheist is pretty much like running up caps, but I think we ought to make that effort. I personally am not sure if I’m willing to make that effort personally, but I hope other people are. 

What are some of the projects you’re working on now? Knowing you? Another must be a whole mass of them you’re doing simultaneously. 

Oh, yeah. As well, as I mentioned my new book on religion, the unbelievers will come out this fall, I believe, from Prometheus. I’m obviously doing a lot of work in the horror field as well. In fact, I am writing a what I proposed to be a two volume comprehensive history of supernatural fiction, beginning with Gilgamesh and going up to the present day. 

I’ve written the first volume already. 

The first volume, about 150000 words, goes up to the end of the 19th century right through, say, Ambrose Beers and the Victorian Go Story Writers. And I’ve started work on the second volume. I’m still not entirely sure who’s going to publish this book. I have some some feelers out there, but that’s that’s probably one of the major things taking up my time in terms of Lovecraft. As I’ve mentioned many times before, the final frontier in Lovecraft studies is the publication of his letters, and I have made some headway in that. But basically I have undertaken to publish the complete Lovecraft letters in about 25 volumes over the next 10 to 15 years with Hippocampus Press. We’ve published the letters to August Thurlow’s. We publish the letters to Robert Howard. We’re going to be publishing the letters to Clark, Ashton Smith, both sides of the correspondence probably next year and just on down the line with the correspondence cycles to individual correspondence. And that’s a major undertaking. 

And I feel that once that’s done, every single word of Lovecraft, I think will be in print somehow. And I’ve even encroached upon your own territory. The clue mythos in the sense that I have just published a new anthology of original mythos fiction, although I call it Lovecraftian fiction, with a slightly broader scope. 

It’s called black. Wings, new tales of Lovecraftian horror. This is just come out from P.S. Publishing in the U.K. and I’m already working on a second volume of the same story. 

This might become a series if there’s enough interest. 

Another writer we’ve discussed in that, Lovecraft certainly does. The Irish baron, Lord Dun’s Sanie. I remember I used to speak. 

Speaking of preach in your own choir when I had kind of a diet. Oh, no. 

It’s hard to categorize some sort of humor Mr. Atheist congregation and would speak to them before a discussion period. Sometimes I would read them a story by Lord Dun’s Saini and be impressed that this was like atheist scripture. Then it had the depth and the riches and the sense of wonder that a good Bible passage might have. And yet what it conveys is, is skepticism and atheists and so forth. He really had both hemispheres of his brain going. Does that show, do you think that that what people think they need religion for is really just a function of their imagination? And if they would cultivate that, they wouldn’t need the other? 

Oh, yeah, I think so. I mean, didn’t say he apparently was an atheist. In fact, just before he wrote his first book, The Gods of Begoña, he apparently was reading nature. And that shows because that God’s the began as well as the next one and the time and the gods are a strange fusion of his of that scene is very thorough reading of the King James Bible, at least on a level of prose and the conception of of Nietzsche, among other things. So, yeah, those early works of those zany are a fascinating Maloja of atheist philosophy and a sort of plays a religious superstructure, at least again on the level of prose. I think what the he was saying in those works is that religion can function as a sort of esthetic ornament and can perhaps only function that way, that it is indeed a product of one’s imagination. I mean, there are other things going on it those work. I think a lot of them saying he is getting towards the notion of reunification with the natural world, then saying it was actually sort of an early environmentalist in the sense that he despised industrialization, just like Lovecraft. A bit later on. He hated billboards and then hated advertising, didn’t even want to read the newspaper because it was too contemporary. It would take his mind off the contemplation of internal things. 

So you had density is a great exemplar for what an atheist can do, what he lets his imagination roam free. 

A lot of what you you hear from them is so tin eared and esthetically insensitive. It’s really a terrible lack. And after a while, I suspect that drives some people away from it. And it’s good to see there are use of lone beacons out there that show. Now, you really could apply the same sort of fantastic imagination and the same ways. Well, I’d like to thank you very much for being our guest on a point of inquiry, and I’d love to have you on again some time. 

Well, it’s been great talking to you. 

This is Ron Lindsay president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. I am delighted to announce that we are once again sponsoring Camp Inquiry, a unique summer camp for young skeptics from ages seven to 16. Camp Inquiry encourages children to think for themselves free from the constraints of religious dogma and the myths of pseudoscience. I should let Dr. Anji McQuaig, director of the camp, tell you more about it. 

We are proud to announce this year’s camp inquiry theme. Young Minds, Big questions. Who am I and why am I here? What can I know and what am I to do? Once the domain of theological and speculative thought, these questions are now increasingly being addressed by the sciences and by kids. Young minds. Big questions serve as the Center for Inquiry Central Mission of elucidating the philosophical, moral and cultural implications of the scientific outlook. Cameras will engage in Hands-On philosophy this summer, including games, team activities, dialog, outdoor exploration and arts projects to explore where we fit in the cosmic narrative offered by the natural sciences. Young Minds. Big Questions also serves as the title of a short feature documentary that campus will produce as the capstone of their summer experience and parents. You’re invited to join us for dinner with Dale McGowan, coauthor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Free Thinkers. And a very special evening with the amazing James Randi, the world’s leading investigator. And demystify the of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Camp inquiry will be held at Camp Seven Hills and Hall in New York between July 18th and 24th. For more information or to register, please visit Camp Inquiry dot org. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winner Michael Feiglin. Today Show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Robert Price. 

Robert M. Price

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, Robert Price moved to New Jersey in 1965. At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary he took an MTS degree in New Testament (1978), then, at Drew University, a PhD in Systematic Theology (1981) and a second PhD in New Testament (1993). He has served as Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, North Carolina, pastor of First Baptist Church, Montclair, NJ, and Director of the Metro NY Center for Inquiry. He founded and edited the Journal of Higher Criticism and has authored scores of articles on the Bible and religion. His books include Beyond Born AgainThe Widow Traditions in Luke-ActsDeconstructing JesusThe Incredible Shrinking Son of ManThe Da Vinci FraudThe Reason-Driven LifeThe Pre-Nicene New TestamentJesus Is Dead, and The Paperback Apocalypse. Price is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He served as Professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary and Professor of Biblical Criticism for the Center for Inquiry Institute in Amherst, NY. He and his wife Carol and daughters Victoria and Veronica live in Selma, NC.