Friday, March 27, 2015

I Don't Know Whether Mechanical Watches Would Survive An Electromagnetic Pulse

An electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, accompanies the blast of a nuclear bomb and disables all electronics within the range of the bomb's blast. Of course, this tended not to be noticed in bomb blasts because anything the pulse had disabled had also been destroyed by the blast and heat and radiation. But then devices began to be built which would produce just the pulse, and not the nuclear blast. The point of weaponizing such devices would be to cripple the enemy's electronics without killing people. As it was phrased in the Soderberg-Clooney Ocean's Eleven's rather unrealistic depiction of a big EMP, the desired result would be not Hiroshima, but the 17th century.

As both an admirer of mechanical watches and a person who attempts to be realistic and rational, until recently I had thought that since, oh, 1980 or so, there had been very little, and ever less, rational reason for making or buying mechanical watches. Which is fine: there's also no rational reason to make and buy paintings or Ferraris. There's a lot more to life than rationality.

But then I thought, Wait a minute: EMP's! 17th century? This would mean that suddenly the possessers of mechanical, wind-up or automatic watches would instantly go from eccentrics and conspicuous consumers to kings and queens among men, because when it came to time-keeping, everyone would have to rely on things like clocks powered by pendulums, wind-up portable alarm clocks -- and those mechanical watches. Fine jeweler's stores, with more mechanical watches and fewer quartz-powered ones, would become logistical centers from which We Would Rebuild.

But then I thought again: wait a minute, maybe an EMP would have an effect more drastic than the 17th century: mechanical watches are full of many tiny delicate metal parts. Would an EMP magnetize all those parts? If so, the mechanical watches would be just as dead as any electronic timekeeper. (And would large metal objects as well as tiny ones be magnetized? Would cars and trucks and trains be piled together in big magnetic clumps?)

So I researched the question of how mechanical watches would hold up under an EMP blast, and I still don't know the answer, because I don't know enough about physics to evaluate the answers I've found, nor the people answering. There are some people who say yes, the watches would hold up just fine and their wearers would indeed be kings and queens among men, and there are others who say no, mechanical watches would be magnetized and therefore destroyed in all their function, and still others who maintain that only a few mechanical watches, perhaps including those with Omega's new co-axial movement, would survive and still function, and the rest would be completely useless, some temporarily and many forever. (No, I have no idea whatsoever how Omega's new co-axial movement works, or whether Omega is massively overhyping it or whether it truly is a great advance in timekeeping, or anything. No idea whatsoever. I do know that NASA officially approved Omega watches for astronauts to wear in space, and I have no idea whatsoever how much importance, if any, to attach to that fact, or if it means anything at all when comparing Omegas to Rolexes.) I don't know how to evaluate the technical arguments made by the people on either side, nor do I know how to tell who is to be taken seriously as an authority on this question, and who is to physics as Dan Brown is to history.

My general (very very amateur) impression is that there may well not be enough data yet to know how mechanical watches would withstand an EMP.

Or is the gummit sitting on huge amounts of the relevant information, deliberately collected during its bomb tests over the decades, and on huge stockpiles of Omegas? (Duh-duh-DUHHHH.)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Even Athesists Often Fall For Nostalgic Nonsense And Myths

For example, some extreme malarkey along the lines of "Humans were all united until race, religion, politics and wealth divided us." is actually very widespread in atheist communities. The amount of stuff you have to not know in order to go for this kind of tripe is huge.

In reality, long before there were homo sapiens, millions of years ago -- millions -- our ancestors began to develop weapons from stone and other materials, and as a result of this and other evolutions, they began to be eaten by large carnivores less often, and to kill each other with those weapons. We don't know that they weren't killing each other with their hands and feet and teeth before that, but the but the traces of the wounds left by the hominid-made weapons are clearly distinguishable from those made by teeth and claws.

We don't know when this time before religion may have been: artifacts made by homo sapiens over 30,000 years appear to have been made for religious purposes.

Did politics make people more unequal than they had been? I don't know -- and neither do you -- but I do know that organization closely related to religion first moved humans from living in trees and caves to living in towns. Cities as old as 6000 BC are built around religious buildings, and and as new as AD 1700, and all of them in between. The earliest known people who could write, from before 3000 BC, were temple scribes as well as administrators, and educational institutions truly free of religious influence are still a very recent thing.

No human civilization has a known pre-religious stage, as anyone with the slightest acquaintance with prehistoric humans knows. You think things used to be better before religion, by all means, be my guest and go live in a tree and leave those of us alone who can handle the truth.

I'd like for us to evolve beyond religion, but we're not going to to do that by replacing traditional mythical pasts with new myths.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


6 atheists were featured: Richard Dawkins; Dave Silverman, president of American Aheists, the people who stir so much shit and accomplish so little by putting up nya-nya-nya-nya-nyaaaaa-nyaaa atheist billboards and litigating to have expressions of religious sentiment removed from public places (Imagine: one day they may succeed in removing "IN GOD WE TRUST" from our money. Whoop-dee-frekin-doo!); and 2 other people, one a young man who leads an atheist group at a university in northern Alabama or Georgia; and the other a young woman who's studying at Harvard Divinity School while simultaneously being an atheist.

Oh, and I almost forgot: also a Christian clergyman who is a closeted atheist. CNN deliberately hid his identity. They are undeliberately but just as effectively hiding the names of the 2 students in the South and at the Harvard Divinity School; their names seem to be written down nowhere on the CNN website or anywhere else on the WWW. The only way I can think of at this point to retrieve their names, and whether the young Southern man is studying in northern Georgia or northern Alabama -- could just possibly be northern Mississippi too -- would be to watch the show again, and frankly, it wasn't that good. If you can retrieve their names you're a better man than I, or maybe just a man with less on his schedule.

Kyra Phillips hosted the show and interviewed all 6 of the featured atheists, and a few other atheists, and some more people.

Richard Dawkins didn't get much airtime, which means he said relatively little on the show with which I disagree. Phillips referred to Dawkins at one point as "the father of atheism," which certainly made me wince, as other people must have winced who were hoping that the show would comment at least a little on the history of atheism, which, believe it or not, Dawkins did not actually invent. Dawkins said that he got a "warm feeling" from the Church of England, and that "nobody" in the Church of England "really believes any of it." Which of course is bullshit, the sort of bullshit we're getting used to hearing from Dawkins. And of course, in the eyes of many present-day atheists, Dawkins actually is something like "the father of atheism," a figure of such immense unearned respect that any and every stupid thing he says is treated like received wisdom. I had been wondering just exactly why some English twits it has been my misfortune to meet insist that Christianity is dead and gone and over with in England; the answer may be just as simple as the explanation of why so any people think that the bible was written by Bronze Age goat herders and that most Muslims support terrorism: Dawkins said so. I know that Rowan Williams, head of the Church of England until 2002, said while in office that he didn't believe in God. I've also noticed how strenuously Williams has backpedaled from that position since he said it, which he hardly would have needed to have done had not so many theist members of the C of E become so very angry at him for saying such a thing. I've also wondered just exactly how much William's public statement of disbelief had to do with his ceasing to be head of the Church of England in 2002.

One of the atheists on the show, I think it may have been Silverman, said that "skeptic," "freethinker" and other terms mean nothing more or less than "atheist," and that atheists who call themselves skeptics or freethinkers instead of atheists are "lying." I almost agree with that. I would say that they're atheists who are still partway in the closet. Very interestingly, Dawkins said that the term "atheist" has acquired so many negative connotations that it may be necessary to come up with another term for us. If he has the faintest clue that he is directly responsible for a large part of those negative connotations, he gave no sign of it on the CNN show. I don't think that we need to replace the term "atheist." I think that a lot of the current stigma attaching to the label will go away if we can get to a state of affairs where no one will find it odd that a person is an atheist, and thinks that almost everything said about religion and atheism by Dawkins, or Sam Harris or PZ Myers, is idiotic -- including, for example, this recent statement by Dawkins that the term "atheist" might have to be replaced. Unfortunately, Richard the Great, if not in fact the father of atheism, is currently still its King.

Definitely the most heart-wrenching parts of the CNN show were from the interview with the parents of the student in the South: while he runs an Ask an Atheist program at the local university, his parents remain fundamentalists who are convinced that their son is going to Hell. It's not a matter of debate, they say: Scripture says that anyone who rejects Christ is going to Hell. I wonder if these people eat pork, or shellfish, or beef cooked with dairy products. It's not a matter of debate that Scripture says those things and a whole long list of other harmless things are abominations.

Jerry Dewitt lives in Louisiana and used to be an evangelical pastor; now he leads atheist church services. As he says, his church now is just like his church was then except that he leaves out Jesus. At one point in his sermon he actually said, "Can I get a 'Darwin'?!" Res ipse loquitur. Dewitt strikes me as a bit of a -- a smooth-talking, self-serving snake-oil salesman, very much indeed like an evangelical pastor.

Silverman: billboards crudely, unkindly mocking religion, and campaigns to take the 10 Commandments off of courthouse walls. He heads the largest atheist organization in the US, and this is what they accomplish. No competing with churches, synagogues and mosques in terms of relief for the poor, or for that matter with more progressive religious institutions in fighting for social justice. No, nothing like that can be addressed as long as "IN GOD WE TRUST" is still on our money. What a bunch of worse-than-useless assholes. Determined to sink to the level of the worst of the theists, cause -- "Hey, they started it!"

As I said, I don't remember the name of the atheist Harvard Divinity School student featured on the show. But I do remember shots of her sitting next to Grep Epstein, Harvard's Humanist Chaplain. And the student has recently been appointed to some sort of Assistant Chaplain office.

And then there's the anonymous clergyman in the atheist closet.

A whole bunch of atheists on this show who still want to be clergy people of some kind or other. If someone had just come from Mars and watched this show, he or she might get the impression that "atheist" is a kind of preacher. I really don't think that that's representative of most atheists. I don't think most of us miss church or temple so much that we want to form some weird atheist version of it. Although I do applaud Epstein's expressed sentiment of unity and acceptance for Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, atheists and etc, his championing of tolerance for people of all beliefs or lack of beliefs. I just don't see the need for atheists to retain so very many of the trappings of religion.

The Harvard Divinity School student may end up actually knowing a lot about religion, studying it full-time as she is. And knowledge is a good thing. Knowledge is what separates the marvelous, awe-inspiring biologist Richard Dawkins

from the zany, out-of-touch crackpot and horrible islamophobic bigot Richard Dawkins.

As for the clergyman who's secretly an atheist, and all the other people who are secretly atheists, I see no need to pretty it up or tone it down: I've got no sympathy for you. Not for closet atheists in the US, whining about your anguish and isolation while you perpetuate the institutions and customs which you claim are oppressing you. In plain fact, you are oppressing those of us who are out. And you want me to feel sorry for you? In some other countries being an atheist can actually be dangerous, but in the US, if you actually want to do something for atheists, you need to come out. And that includes calling yourself an atheist and not some synonym like a skeptic or a freethinker.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Science And Western Philosophy

In what follows, as in my blog generally, the term "philosophy" refers to Western philosophy. This is not because I have anything against philosophy from China or India or the indigenous cultures of the Western Hemisphere or from anywhere else on the planet; on the contrary, it's merely because I know so little about non-Western philosophy.

Every now and then someone who knows a bit about physics or biology or geology and remarkably little about a lot of other things will answer the question "What is philosophy?" by saying that philosophy was what very weakly and incompletely plugged a few gaps in things before Francis Bacon formulated the scientific method and the Scientific Revolution got underway, and add with a condescending smirk that of course this answer doesn't sit well with philosophers. And of course he or she (usually he) is right, that answer does not sit well with philosophers. Or with anybody who actually knows what philosophy is, or knows that the scientific method actually was used now and then -- by philosophers -- for thousands of years before Francis Bacon formulated it.

Western philosophy is the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and their pals, and Russell, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Rorty, Sloterdijk and their pals, and all the people in between who studied Plato and Aristotle and the people in between up until their own time, however you want to describe them, and whatever their attitude toward their illustrious predecessors was.

Within Western philosophy, up until and including Galileo and Francis Bacon, the terms "philosopher" and "scientist" mean pretty much the same thing, and since then, by and large, with a few exceptions, philosophers have tended to know a shitload more about science than scientists have known about philosophy. People generally these days have a healthy appreciation of and respect for science, and philosophers are very rarely an exception to this rule. It's a shame that some prominent scientists don't know jack about philosophy, or history, or art or literature or music or psychology, and yet publicly hold forth on their special area of ignorance as if they had a clue. That's really a shame.

I am notorious for my unwillingness to describe philosophy any more exactly than by saying that it's been what has been written by those people known as philosophers: the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Zeno, Boethius, Roger Bacon, William of Occam, Machiavelli, Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Pascal, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Russell, Sarte -- you know, all those guys plus the handful of gals which they, unfortunately very misogynistic, very many of them, have let into their club. What it is is what those people have done, however you choose to describe it. I don't define it any more exactly than that because I happen to think that that is exactly what it is. If you have something intelligent to say about Plato and Hume, because you've actually read and understood them, there's a good chance you could reasonably be called a philosopher. If you can't, because you haven't, then chances are you can't be. Just as I think that a religion is that group of people who identify as belonging to that religion, and not a set of beliefs, so I think that philosophy is the above-described group of people, and not something they all have in common which can be abstractly described in several dozen words or less. Philosophers, including the famous ones, have been brilliant and stupid, gregarious and misanthropic, nationalistic and enemies of cultural boundaries, polyglots and bigoted haters of all but one language (although more usually polyglots), world travelers and agoraphobes, sometimes not misogynistic at all, sometimes women, and so on and so forth. As we all know, "philosopher" means "lover of wisdom," but it's not as if there's anything close to a consensus among philosophers about what actually is and isn't wise, or who's wise and who's a fool.

I suppose I actually can think of one characteristic which philosophers generally share, just one: we like to read the works of other philosophers, even the ones we disagree with intensely. We read the latter so as more soundly to refute them and overturn the influence of their folly. It's not as if we're doing it for the money.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fun Facts About This Blog

1) I published my first post about Michael Paulkovich on the 29th of September, 2014, and my fist post about Justin Bieber on the 19th of March, 2015. In the first 48 hours after they were published, the post on Michael Paulkovich received more than 100 times as many pageviews as the post on Justin Bieber.

2) On the 28th of March, 2011, I made an experiment to see if I could get more traffic on the blog by pandering to mass tastes than by doing what I usually do, with a post entitled Cute Baby Animal Pictures! whose texts begins: "In this post I'm going to pander to mass tastes." and after that consists mostly of baby-talk, like: "Widgiewidgiewidgiewidgie! Who's a pwecious liddle fing? Who's my liddle pwecious?" interspersed among 6 photos of baby animals, 4 of which have disappeared. The photos were linked from the web rather than uploaded by me.

"Cute Baby Animal Pictures!" has received about 40 times as many pageviews as the average Wrong Monkey post, second all-time on this blog only to my aforementioned first post on Michael Paulkovich. It continues to be one of The Wrong Monkey's most popular posts week-in and week-out, despite the missing photos. But it was the only such attempt I have made to pander to mass tastes. This blog's lowered potential commercial success has been literature's gain -- or it has been literature's loss if you prefer to look at it that way. I'm just glad you're reading my blog, I'm not going to try to tell you what to think of it.

3) One of The Wrong Monkey's all-time most popular posts has been the ironically-entitled Why I Stopped Reading The Watch Snob, and I have no idea why so many people have viewed it. Nobody has commented on it, so I've gotten no clues that way about what's aroused people's interest. I haven't been able to find it linked anywhere. I repeat, this post is ironically-titled. I haven't stopped reading The Watch Snob, I think it's a good column, I actually learn things by reading it. Also, it's witty. Also, as I've mentioned on that post, The Watch Snob and The Wrong Monkey sound like a pair of super-villains teamed up to thwart Batman & Robin.

But I don't know why people are reading that post. For all I know, the Watch Snob's online presence might be popular beyond my wildest imagination, and people find my post just by mistake. For all I know, people who dislike the Watch Snob surf to my post thinking I'm a kindred spirit. Sorry about that, if that's the case.

4) I'd very much like it if each and every one of you would talk me up for the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. That's a stone-cold fact: I'd appreciate it very much indeed! Especially if you happen to know -- or be -- extremely-influential people in the worlds of publishing and literature. I want that Prize, I want it bad. That's a fact. You know how Roger Daltrey sings on "Magic Bus," "I waaaant it, I waaaant it, I waaaant it[...]" That's how I feel, it's how I am all the time. Fame? I waaaant it. Fortune? I waaaaant it. That Prize? I waaaaant it. A date with Reese Witherspoon, if she's single? I waaaaant it. A platinum Daytona with an ice-blue dial? Why yes, thank you, in fact I'll take two of those! Yeah. Yeah! I want a whole bunch of all of that! Desire makes me strong and improves my posture.

5) In "Him With His Foot In His Mouth" by Saul Bellow, the title character and narrator, who realizes that on many occasions in his life he has been more candid than was either prudent or kind, says to one character whom he hopes will give his university a grant, who at a banquet has been telling him for hours on end about all of the money she has given to artists and other deserving people, when she mentions that she plans to write her memoirs, asks her: "Do you plan to use a typewriter or an adding machine?" and says to a family member attempting to involve him in a court case which he regards as nothing better than rank extortion, and who says to him, the narrator, the artsy, literate one in the rough-and-tumble family: "You're the one with the words" -- Ah say Ah say this one wit his foot in his mout, this artsy one, he replies: "And you're the whore with nine cunts!" But it's a fact that Bellow wrote this high-minded piece of frankness after he'd published several huge bestsellers AND won that great big Nobel Prize -- the very same one. That's a fact. So if his ghost or his fans want to look down their noses at me for wanting a whole bunch of stuff they can, pardon my French but they can all go sit on it!!! That's a fact, that's exactly what they can do! ("Him With His Foot In His Mouth" is a great story, the title story of a great volume of stories. I don't know what to do with the fact that such a beautiful writer let himself be politically seduced by the neocon Mephistofeles.)

On Tuesday, March 24, At 9PM Eastern Time, CNN Will Air A Show About Atheists

In some circles I travel in, the title of this blog post contains no new information. The people in these circles are all atheists, and they have all known about this upcoming special report on atheism for some time already, and they all are besides themselves waiting for Tuesday evening to hurry up and arrive and they can see the show and love it or hate it, as the case may be. Love it for acknowledging that atheists exist and aren't monsters, hate it for inadequately representing the particular kind of atheist they are, or what have you.

If they show atheists who, like me, deplore the actions of the New Atheists/movement atheists, the movement atheists will be furious -- but whatever, they're always furious. It's tiresome.

If they devote some time to me and my blog, and if as a result I become rich and famous, well, that'll be really neat. (Wouldn't hurt a bit with Nobel Prize campaign either.) I'm not holding my breath about this, because snippets of interviews with Dawkins and others done for the show have already been circulating for a while, and they haven't interviewed me. If they want to interview me: every reader's comment on this blog is moderated before being published. If CNN wants to contact me they can leave a comment with their contact info, nobody else will see the contact info. (If they want to be absolutely super-careful they can write "PERSONAL" at the top of the message, but that really would be overkill.)

I don't think they're going to mention me.

It's clear that they're going to look at some New Atheists/movement atheists. The question uppermost in my mind is if and to what extent they will cover atheists who, like my own wonderful self, are at odds with the New Atheists and don't want them to be thought of as representing us. New Atheists seem often to think of themselves as synonymous with atheism in general. It really would be too bad if this misconception were to spread beyond the New Atheists.

CNN Special Report: Atheists

What I Like (Art) And Dislike (Theology) About Religions (Plural)

Generally speaking, I dislike the religions least with which I am least familiar. I'm not saying there are no differences between religions, because there certainly are, but the more I learn about a religion, the more depressingly obvious its similarities with other religions become. The religion I disrespect the least at the moment is Sikhism. I know almost nothing about it. Almost everything I do know about it comes from one TV show hosted by Anthony Bourdain and another one hosted by Michael Palin, in which they take part in a festival held at Sikhism's Golden Palace. Looked pretty cool on TV.

I can often enjoy religious art if there isn't anybody in my face pushing theological nonsense on me. (And for the bazillionth time, you Buddhists: Buddhism is a religion, your nonsense is religious, and please keep it outta my face! Thank you, namaste!) I love Byzantine mosaics. If you're ever in Venice, you should step inside St Mark's, and if you're ever in Ravenna you should step inside St Vitale's, and look at the mosaics. Probably you'll love the mosaics, cause probably you're not dead inside. I guarantee that going to those churches and looking at the mosaics will not be a waste of your time, because probably you'll love the mosaics, which are made of glass, not stone, and are lit from sunlight shining through them. If you don't like either the 12th-century mosaics in St Mark's or the 6th-century mosaics in St Vitale's, if you really are that dead inside, then you'll know that you don't like any mosaics anywhere and never will, and you'll never have to waste one more moment of your life looking at or thinking about mosaics.

You're welcome. It's a pleasure and an honor for me to educate the public like this. And it will be even more of an honor and privilege, and I will be able to do it even more effectively, if you can imagine such a thing -- I know right?! -- when I win the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, so, c'mon now, talk me up! Let's do this! Thank you.

I am somewhat familiar with ancient Greek and Roman literature, which constantly makes reference to the Graeco-Roman pagan religion, but I don't know if I can honestly say that I'm familiar with that religion. Ancient Greek and Latin are inaccurately referred to as dead languages, because many people still read and even write them. They're not dead, and they're not going to die soon. Besides those fluent in those languages, millions of people, maybe hundreds of millions, are familiar enough with stories from Classical Greek and Latin that they could name half a dozen Graeco-Roman deities off the top of their heads. Hollywood keeps making blockbuster movies based on those ancient stories. You know why? Because they're great stories, that's why!

Still, I think it's fair to say that Graeco-Roman pagan religion is dead. We still have stories from that religion all around us. What we do not have is active adherents of that religion telling us in all seriousness that we must practice that religion for our own good. I don't know how seriously that religion was taken by most Greeks and Romans before Christianity killed it. Certainly, some people took it all very seriously and literally. But I suspect that even in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, many people didn't take it seriously, and that as time went by it was taken less and less seriously, and that this made it much easier to enjoy. Yes, animals were sacrificed to numerous Graeco-Roman deities, including many deceased and living Roman Emperors, right up until the time when the Christians forbad it, and tore down the temples where the sacrifices were many and the deities praised. But how many of the people attending these pagan festivities took it all literally, and for how many of them was it primarily a good time and a chance to meet people?

We can say at the very least that the pagans allowed people to say that they thought there was nothing at all supernatural going on and that nothing in religion could be taken literally by any serious person. People said and wrote such things and weren't punished for it. When the Christians took over people were killed for casting doubt on Christian teachings, doubts which often were to do with very minor differences in doctrine and didn't come anywhere close to open atheism -- and they continued to be killed for such dissent until the early 19th century. This killing for religious dissent was one of the things Napoleon wanted to erase from Europe, and actually did erase. Napoleon wasn't anything like the thoroughly, shallowly egotistical monster which traditional monarchist propaganda somehow still very often succeeds in portraying him to have been.

Before Christianity took over, there surely were a few pagan zealots who could be as tiresome as the zealots of any other religion. And in long-remote times (and occasionally not as remote as the Greeks and Romans themselves liked to believe, see Frazer's Golden Bough),

say, earlier than 500 BC in Rome and 700 BC in Greece, the zealous believers and priests had wielded gruesome power and it was all very, very serious indeed. But by 400 BC some Greek philosophers were openly doubting the existence of any and all supernatural things, and by AD 0 Greeks and Romans were joking about such things, and if anybody was upset enough to want to kill such mockers, they certainly didn't have the power to do so. Mocking Rome's political authority was a different matter altogether, of course, but religion, all religion, religion per se and any and all belief in the supernatural, could be openly doubted without Rome feeling that it besmirched her political authority. Supposedly the Emperor Vespasian joked as he was dying in AD 79, "“Vae, puto deus fio” ("Uh-oh, I think I'm becoming a god.") The point is not whether or not Vespasian actually said something like that, and also not whether any Popes ever said similarly blasphemous things -- I suspect that a few of them have -- but that an anecdote indicating that an Emperor who was worshiped as a deity had thought that religion was nonsense became public in the ancient Graeco-Roman world without anyone at all appearing to have gone all to pieces upon hearing it, whereas a similar anecdote about an irreligious Pope would have caused quite an uproar indeed.

To me, this seems to indicate that the ancient Romans took religion much less seriously, and to me, that's close to saying that very many of them didn't believe in religion or the supernatural at all. Of course, here as always and everywhere, we can only guess what others truly believe. We can only infer from their actions and statements as to their beliefs.