19 January 2013
For decades secular Americans have been painfully aware of an odd American
phenomenon: secularists and unbelievers tend to know a great deal more about religion
in general, Christianity in particular, and the contents of the Bible, than most of our
neighbors who profess a faith. In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to
Know -- and Doesn't, author, professor of religion, and commentator Stephen Prothero
tries to explain this phenomenon.
A believer himself, Prothero acknowledges that Americans talk a great deal about the
Bible but almost never read it, know next to nothing about their own religions, and even
less about anybody else's. In today's America many of us would imagine that this is due
to increasing secularism, but Prothero says that is not the case. As he explains it,
religious institutions in the U.S. have made a series of internal choices that have
resulted in a dumbing down of their religions.
Our colonial past was quite different, Prothero claims. America's 17th century Puritans
had many problems, but ignorance of their own religion wasn't one of them. Most of
their ministers were academics in an era in which academia was heavily biblical, and
unlike their modern counterparts, they preached denominational doctrine and vast
portions of the Bible. The result was that regular attendees at their services had a firm
grasp of their church's doctrine, could explain how other denominations were different,
and were thoroughly acquainted with the a large percentage of the Bible.
This changed as America became less Calvinist and more Evangelical, increasingly
emphasizing emotional fervor over doctrinal study. By the time of the Second Great
Awakening, a revival movement that swept the U.S. in the middle of the 19th century,
this shift was almost complete. Preachers in that movement had more style than
substance. They could induce swoons and seizures, but could not and did not educate.
At the same time, different Protestant groups tried to cooperate across denominational
lines in the production of teaching and missionizing materials. That required a
willingness to ignore details about which denominations disagreed, and to focus instead
on the subset of beliefs and interpretations they held in common. This process of
watering down doctrine got worse in the second half of the 20th century, as various
Christian groups tried to form alliances in a bid for political influence and power.
Prothero would like to reverse this trend by requiring more education about religion in
K-12 and undergraduate university studies, in public schools. He waxes enthusiastic on
this point, and his proposal probably goes further than most secular Americans would
be comfortable with. In spite of this, many unbelievers would likely support a toned-
down version of his plan, since many are quite certain that studying the whole Bible, not
just the warm and fuzzy parts presented in most churches and church-affiliated schools
today, is the best way to secularize the nation.
Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't(2007, ISBN 0-06-084670-4), by Stephen Prothero.
- Jim Dugan
10 October 2012
The latest (April 2012) from physicist and author Victor J. Stenger is God and the Folly
of Faith. Those familiar with Stenger's other books -- I think there are 10 of them now --
will not be surprised to learn that he believes science and religion are fundamentally
incompatible. But in this volume he sharpens his focus on that point, firmly rejecting the
notion that science and religion can function as non-overlapping magisteria, portraying
them instead as "diametrically opposed worldviews." He makes it quite clear that the
two worldviews are not of equal value, as religion involves "magical thinking" that
"warps all areas of life," while science alone has a "commitment to truth." He ends the
book with a call for the "eradication of foolish faith from the face of this planet."
Stenger's approach is mostly historical, which Is perhaps the book's only weakness,
since he isn't a historian. He makes a few minor mistakes, only with regard to historical
contexts, and none that harm his arguments. But when it comes to understanding the
theories of physics of different eras, and his ability to explain them clearly, there is no
room to doubt his mastery. This book is worth reading for its review of cosmological
theory alone, ignoring its treatment of the tensions between science and religion.
Stenger is committed to the demystification of physics. Yes, quarks and quanta can do
some pretty incomprehensible things, but only at the subatomic level. The rules being
worked out at that level lead directly to the more comprehensible physics of ordinary
human experience. He derides modern-day gurus who toss the word "quantum" into
any half-baked notion in an attempt to make room for divine miracles or just plain magic.
The universe is complex and some processes can only be explained in statistical terms,
but those facts don't add up to mysticism.
If the universe is comprehensible by logic, religion is not. It leads people to deny
evolution, global warming, and other plainly observable facts. It leads people to hold
political and policy positions that are based only in myth. It dumbs down America in a
world increasingly reliant on science and technology. Never mind the religious right's
allegations about a war against religion. Religion is an assault on science, and there
simply is no way for the two to coexist peacefully.
God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, by Victor J.
Stenger. Prometheus Books (2012). ISBN: 9781616145996. 375 pages.
- Jim Dugan
09 June 2012
I hadn't noticed this particular bit of creationist shlock until somebody posted a page of it on Facebook. I just couldn't resist, and bought myself a used copy, purely for its entertainment value. Dinosaurs of Eden, is an attempt to assure young people that science has it all wrong. It was written by Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and its subsidiary, the Creation Museum.
The book is short and illustrated in order to appeal to children or younger teens, although the text is a bit dense for that age group. One suspects that many of the readers would be older teens and young adults whose scientific education has been minimal. Some of the pictures show Adam and Eve playing with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden, dinosaurs on Noah's ark, humans riding dinosaurs and using them as pack animals, and even a pair of dinosaurs fighting in a Mediaeval European village, whose residents called the beasts "dragons."
The text assures the reader that God created the world about 6,000 years ago, in 6 days of 24 hours each. Humans and dinosaurs must have co-existed, since God created both on the same day. A flood submerged the entire world about 4,500 years ago, creating most of the fossils and many of the geological features we see today. Saved on Noah's ark, dinosaurs survived the flood and might still live today, given the occasional report of giant beasts in remote jungles and the discovery of "fresh" dinosaur bones in Montana. Scientists don't have complete information, so they've "had to make guesses" about what happened in the past. Why do they cling to Evolution rather than Biblical truth? “The answer is that scientists, like everyone else, are sinners. Because of this, they don’t want to believe. It has nothing to do with the evidence.” Believers, on the other hand, have the Bible, which "does tell us all we need to know about the events of the past," and is the only 100-percent accurate history book in the world.
This would be laughable, if we could forget that the book was deliberately written to damage the critical thinking skills of young people.
Dinosaurs of Eden: Tracing the Mystery Through History, by Ken Ham. Master Books (2000). ISBN: 978-0890513408. 64 pages.
- Jim Dugan
10 June 2012
“Drinking the Kool-Aid”: It’s a phrase probably said every hour of every day in the United States, and the flippancy sometimes makes us forget about the dark origins behind the words, in a mass suicide in the jungles of South America at a place known as Jonestown.
In November 1978, Americans could not escape the photos of the dead and the charismatic Indiana preacher who led them. Much has been written over the years about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, by survivors, academic researchers, and even conspiracy theorists.
A recent book by Julia Scheeres—whose own time of terror at the hands of religious extremists in the Caribbean is documented in “Jesus Land”—brings to life the history of Jones and the People’s Temple, from its very first days.
What A Thousand Lives adds to the conversation is new information gleaned from tens of thousands of recently released documents that had been collected by the FBI in the wake of the massacre. This wealth of material includes the personal journal of a Jonestown resident, audio tapes of the Jones’s sermons (including his nearly 24-7 rantings over the community’s PA system), invoices for materials shipped to the colony, false confessions church members were forced to sign to keep them from defecting, hundreds of letters to Jonestown residents from concerned family members that were never delivered, and notes from the community physician (who never completed his residency) on the most effective method for killing large numbers of people. This information broadens and provides a depth to the portrait of the People’s Temple that has not been seen before.
A few issues struck me reading this book. First was how starkly it demonstrated just how dangerous the mixing of church and state can be. One of the reasons that Jones got away with abuse, fraud, etc., for decades was the fact that the church had friends in high places in government, in the United States and Guyana. Jones himself was chair of the San Francisco Housing Authority for a time, named to the position by Mayor Moscone, whom he helped elect. In Guyana, he fostered relationships with government officials that often involving bribes and insiders placed specifically to gather information about which way the wind was blowing as regards to the People’s Temple.
Also, Jones was at the forefront of “faith-based initiatives” from the time the group moved from the Midwest to California, when he encouraged members to open up group homes to house the folks being tossed out of mental institutions by then-Governor Reagan (with all of the government money going to the church, of course). The People’s Temple also cared for foster children (some of whom ended up dead in 1978), fed the homeless, helped addicts overcome. Not only did the People’s Temple receive government funds for doing so, but because of the perception that the group did so much good, news articles and reports from defectors about beatings, financial malfeasance, Jones’ drug use, etc., were discounted by authorities up until the very end. And ironically, the CIA was too worried about violating the church's First Amendment rights to investigate repeated reports from those who escaped the church that a mass suicide was being planned . . . reports that came years before the actual event.
And that is one of the other things that the newly released documents make crystal clear: The people who died at Jonestown, for the most part, had been trapped by Jim Jones and those at the top of the People’s Temple over years and in some cases decades. Parents were separated from their children and forced to sign false confessions of abuse and other crimes to keep them compliant; spouses and other family members were likewise separated. Others were threatened with the revocation of parole if they left the church. Passports and other documents as well as cash were taken upon entry in Guyana, held for “safekeeping.” Jones’s sons helped fake raids on the compound to justify their father’s teachings about external apocalypse and the possibility of a raid. And at the end, there were guns in addition to the cyanide punch. Much of what Jones and the People’s Temple leadership did in those final years was designed to move members, even those who tried to extricate themselves from Jones’s influence, toward those final moments in Guyana. And this fact makes the many lost opportunities to shut Jones down even more distressing.
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres was published in 2011 by Free Press, 320 pages, available in paperback and Ebook editions.
- Rita Premo
1 April 2012
The latest from Sam Harris is Free Will, a title that is self-explanatory. From his
perspective as a neuroscientist, Harris examines the latest evidence regarding free will,
and considers some of its social and political implications. This book is quite short,
serving mostly as an introduction to a complex question that still needs a great deal of
Harris' key point is based on empirical tests. These show that the decisions we make
moment by moment are registered in the brain slightly before we are consciously aware
that we've made them. The conclusion drawn from this is that we make most of our
decisions at some unconscious level. Our perception that we are consciously aware of
and in control of our decision-making processes is a fiction that the conscious mind
creates to explain what has already been completed in some hidden way. The
conscious mind experiences more than it leads.
Harris cautions that this does not reduce human beings to mere automatons. We do
have an ability to think reflectively and analytically, to apply reason and reach
conclusions that are more or less defensible by logic and evidence. Yet the choice to
invoke such reasoning is itself constrained by mental processes that are inscrutable to
the conscious mind. Harris begins here to develop a fascinating idea about "the choice
to choose," but doesn't go far enough in defining it, and this is probably the book's most
The implications of unconscious control run deep. For one thing, Harris feels it makes
the question of a soul irrelevant. Whether there is a soul of spirit, or we are entirely
made of matter and energy, the fact that our will exists more unconsciously than
consciously radically alters our understanding of ethical and criminal responsibility. It
shifts responsibility for many problems away from the individual and more toward
society as a whole, generally undermining the "conservative" world-view that
emphasizes rugged individualism, and pushing more toward a "liberal" and social
Free Will by Sam Harris was published in 2012 by Free Press, ISBN 978-1451683400,
96 pages, available in paperback and Ebook editions. Sam Harris has also authored
The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape.?
- Jim Dugan
4 January 2012
Perhaps you are one of the lucky few who is naturally gifted with mathematical genius or at least has advanced training in the field. No? Me either. I think I understand that our reliance on energies such as light to observe the universe around us places limits on what we can know about the sub-atomic realm, yet it often seems to me that physicists take a little too much pleasure in emphasizing the mysteriousness of the quantum.
Nevertheless, I cannot help but be curious. After all, physicists seem to be investigating the very nature of reality and knowledge, pressing the boundaries between philosophy and observational knowledge.
So I'm always looking for experts who are willing at least to try to explain their insights to those of us who don't "just get differential calculus." To that end, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed The Grand Design, a 2010 publication by Cosmologist-Mathematician-Physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.
In a scant 200 pages, Hawking and Mlodinow attempt to give us non-specialists some grasp of the latest synthesis of theoretical physics, the somewhat poorly bounded M-theory. This is an entry into the counter-intuitive realm of sub-atomic particles whose paths through space seem to take on specifics only upon being observed, of quarks and multiverses and forces operating in eleven dimensions, and the on-going quest for a unified way to understand gravity, electro-magnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.
Of special interest to the secularist is the author's confidence in the comprehensible and law-driven nature of the universe. They explain that idea that there are multiple universes is not just a fudge factor made up by non-believers to explain away the need for a creator. Rather, the likelihood of multiple universes is directly implied by the nature of physics as it is now understood. And the possibility or even probability of multiple universes takes physics into discussions once reserved for philosophers. Hawking and Mlodinow break with Stephen Jay Gould's optimistic view of science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria," and dare to ask why there is something rather than nothing, why our universe has the particular physical laws it has, and why we humans exist.
The answer explained in The Grand Design is that the an entire universe, including the one we live in, can consist of positive and negative energies that net to zero. This being the case, multiple universes are as likely to pop into existence as none. The possibility of multiple universes pulls the rug out from under "fine tuning" arguments in favor of an intelligent designer, because various universes could each have different sets of physical laws. We just happen to inhabit this particular one of many, since humans, or beings like us, exist only in those universes with physical laws biased in favor of producing such life forms.
M-Theory is not in the same class as gravity, evolution, or the heliocentric model of the solar system. M-theory is still a hypothesis, a theory with a lower-case "t". In spite of this, it is fascinating to see how physicists grapple with some of the same epistemological problems faced by philosophers. The position of at least these cosmologists closely parallels that of some philosophers, who say that human existence and the array of physical laws that characterize our universe are "brute facts" that simply have to be accepted.
For 500 years science has been steadily reducing the arenas within which a deity might operate. In The Grand Design, Hawking and Mlodinow make it clear that there simply is no such arena. On page 165 they write:
"Many people through the ages have attributed to God the beauty and complexity of nature that in their time seemed to have no scientific explanation. But just as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit."
- Jim Dugan
2 October 2011
Richard Dawkins' 2009 book The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution is an excellent explanation of what Evolution is, how it works, and why it must be true. It is written with clarity for the non-specialist, and should be accessible to any college-educated reader. In a few places Dawkins relies a little too much on references to his other, copious writings, but he has mostly managed to find a good balance between length and readability.
The book touches on many aspects of evolution, from radiometric dating to continental drift to genetics to the domestication of plants and animals. He aptly describes Evolution as an "improbability pump," a process by which many small steps, each as probable as another, can, over time, produce hugely unlikely results. It makes me want to read his 1997 book Climbing Mount Improbable. Through it all, Dawkins refers to Creationists as "history-deniers," meaning that they simply refuse to face plain facts.
I was especially struck by Dawkins' rabbit example (pp. 24-25). He asks the reader to imagine a line of female rabbits, from daughter to mother, to grandmother, to great-grandmother, etc., stretching back for millennia. No matter where we look along this line of descent, any individuals within a few generations of each other will always be the same species. Any differences within a handful of generations will always be negligible, and there will never be any sharp or sudden break. Yet, if we compare individuals separated by thousands of generations, they will be quite different from each other, even distinct species. At the far ends of the chain are a modern-day rabbit and small, shrew-like creature that was the ancestor not only of rabbits, but of all mammals. At any point along the line of descent, separate populations of a given form can take different directions, creating different branches on the family tree.
The rabbit example is important because it addresses some of the most common misunderstandings of Evolution. Creationists too often believe that Evolution means that a horse one day gave birth to a zebra, or that chimeras such as the now infamous and ridiculous "crocoduck" should turn up in the fossil record. They insist that speciation must be sudden and dramatic, and expect an entire species to change in the same way at the same time. The rabbit example helps replace these misconceptions with a more scientific understanding of how Evolution works.
- Jim Dugan
29 August 2011
The Real History of the End of the World is a light-hearted look at a heavy subject. Historian and author Sharan Newman chooses examples from different cultures, religions, and time-periods to show that messiahs, millenarians and other doom-criers are a universal fixture of human societies. The approach is journalistic rather than academic, emphasizing breadth rather than depth.
Each of the 43 very short chapters discusses one particular example of apocalyptic madness. A skeptical eye is turned on ancient Mesopotamian predictions, the Maya calendar, Nostradamus, fundamentalisms within Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions, Chinese revolutions, the "Bible code," and more. The most developed section of the book discusses doomsday movements in North America during the nineteenth century, a particularly productive arena for such phenomena. Given that the author is a historian, it is not surprising that twentieth and twenty-first century movements get only passing mention.
Readers seeking a serious, academic analysis of the subject would do well to look elsewhere. Those wanting a light and readable overview should be pleased. Skeptics and unbelievers may even find this book entertaining.
- Jim Dugan
22 July 2011
Having enjoyed The End of Faith (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), I
eagerly awaited the 2010 publication of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape: How
Science Can Determine Human Values. I've finally been able to give this book the time
and attention it deserves, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in secular
ethics, even though I find it somewhat incomplete.
In The Moral Landscape, Harris attacks the willingness of the scientific establishment to
accept the notion that science has little or nothing to say about morality and values, a
position perhaps best summarized in Stephen Jay Gould's proposal that science and
religion occupy "non-overlapping magisteria." While giving us much to think about,
including descriptions of some interesting ethical conundrums, Harris' reasoning is
readable and straightforward. Morality, he asserts, is about the well-being of sentient
creatures. Assuming no spiritual realm or eternal soul, well-being must then be about
conditions in the physical world around us, and about the biological realities of the
human brain. The important details being aspects of the observable universe, morality
must be subject to logic, reason, systemization, and all the experimental testing science
can devise. Harris is careful to emphasize that science might not yield one right
answer, that there might be many ways to enhance human well-being. But he is also
clear that there are many ideas about human well-being that are objectively,
For me this was a fascinating read, but not especially eye-opening, as I already agree
with the basic premise. The idea of rational and secular ethics is at least as old as
Aristotle, even if modern science has steered an odd course around it. I doubt the book
will convince anyone not already in agreement, whether they are religious believers or
are scientists who accept the currently prevalent separation of scientific "what" from
religious "why." The Moral Landscape is only the beginning of a very long argument, not
Perhaps as an anthropologist myself I am a bit biased, but I would strongly encourage
Dr. Harris, and the other "New Atheists" as well, to read more thoughtfully about the
anthropology of religion, some parts of which they tend to dismiss too lightly. Harris
wants very much to blame religion for many social problems, and deservedly so. But
"religious" violence is usually an indicator of political and economic problems that can't
be solved just by making religion go away. Contrary to the view of the New Atheists,
people rarely come to blows directly over religion. At least where violence is protracted,
repetitive, or organized, we must look for mundane causes, usually based in unequal
distributions of wealth and power. The quintessential example of this is "The Troubles"
in Northern Ireland, a struggle over ethnic identity, political privilege, and economic
access, regularly and deliberately mischaracterized as "sectarian strife." Merely
removing religion from the mix would do nothing to address the underlying social
problems. Similarly, the perceived problems of "Islamic terrorism" will not be solved
without addressing the internal inequalities afflicting many countries dominated by that
religion. If we stop our analysis the moment we've identified a "religious" conflict, we
are making ourselves pawns of the oppressor.
Any scientific approach to the enhancement of human well-being will have to do a good
job of distinguishing root causes from superficial appearances. It's also going to require
bringing a lot more than Harris' own neuroscience to the table. As has always been the
case, engineering a healthy society overlaps Philosophy, Anthropology, Political
Science, and Economics, as well as the sciences of the mind.
- Jim Dugan
June's Book Review
26 June 2011
I was rummaging through the "everything must go" sale at the closing Borders store on St. Charles Ave., and stopped in my tracks when I spotted a copy of Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth. I remembered reading the book - a detailed interpretation of how Christian End Times prophecy will play out - when I was a teenager. The book was cast in terms so tightly bound to the social and political tensions of 1970 that I would have thought it thoroughly discredited and forgotten by now. Yet there it was, a shiny new copy in a mainstream bookstore. Who would publish such a thing in 21st century, and more importantly, who would buy it?
Well . . . I would. Curiosity got the better of me.
But certainly not just me. This book was a "bestseller of the decade," and the current cover claims "over 15 million copies sold." It is frequently cited, and has broadly influenced apocalyptic movements in the U.S. and elsewhere for more than 40 years. Author Hal Lindsey has had success with this and other books, as well as with his Television ministry. Now over 80, he is still writing, preaching, and interpreting End Times prophecy. His Hal Lindsey Reports program can be seen on cable, his web page, and on YouTube. He is the first to admit that his interpretations of prophecy may be fallible, but also claims to have a special gift for interpreting biblical prophecy.
And interpret he does. Knitting together disparate texts from Hebrew and Christian scripture, and tossing in a good bit of anti-modernist angst, Lindsey explains how he thinks the world will end. Soon. Interest in drugs, witchcraft, and astrology will continue to grow, as will apostasy within mainstream Christian denominations. At some point not too far off, the minority of Christians who have managed to hold on to the true faith will be taken into heaven, an event known as the Rapture, so they can avoid a 7-year period of Tribulation that is destined to follow. The Antichrist, a great leader somehow arising out of the revived Roman Empire (the European Union) will help Israel secure peace and rebuild the Jewish temple on Jerusalem's Temple Mount (now occupied by the Islamic Dome of the Rock). But this peace will fall apart after 3-and-a-half years. A northern confederacy led by Magog, which Lindsey identifies as Russia, will ally with a confederacy of Arabs and Africans to attack Israel. Russia will double-cross its allies, attacking many of them, including Egypt. Red China, as Lindsey calls it, will launch an army of 200 million, which will march across the dried up Euphrates river to enter the fray, and the Antichrist will lead a European counter-strike. The book includes maps that illustrate the various phases of amphibious and land assaults, and hedges only slightly when betting that nuclear weapons will be used.
Humanity will come close to destroying itself, but God will intervene. Christ will return, and will reign with all true believers for 1,000 years. At the end of that time, in spite of the near perfection of the Millennium, some humans will still rebel against God, with Satan's help. There will be a final destruction of all evildoers before God creates a new heaven and earth.
In some ways, the book still works in 2011. Lindsey was sure in 1970 that the End was near at hand, but avoided stating specific years, so his interpretations haven't yet expired, at least not technically. The underlying biblical texts, of course, have not changed, and ordinary Christians, especially those of a fundamentalist bent, still feel that the modern world is in some kind of spiral into decadence. His prediction that the US will not be a major player in the final battle because its international power will wane seems even more feasible now than it did then.
In other ways, the glaring datedness of the book is impossible to ignore. Lindsey was clearly reacting to drug use, rising interest in eastern religions, and experimentation with the occult, aspects of the counter culture of the 60s that still exist, but are no longer so salient. He was reacting to godless Communism, which was still a credible threat in 1970, but is now a completely dead issue. The specter of nuclear holocaust still exists, but most of us no longer feel that our entire species is on the brink of self-annihilation, a fear that seemed all too real in 1970. And the whole idea of world-wide obsession with Jerusalem has become quite stale. It was conceivable, in 1970, that the entangling alliances of cold-war politics could drag the whole world into a conflict originating among smaller players in the Middle East. But in 2011 it is difficult to imagine all the great powers of the world converging on a plain in central Israel just to blow each other up.
While those of us with a more secular view might tend to assume that apocalyptic fervor is a declining feature of American culture, here is evidence to the contrary. The Late Great Planet Earth is still in print, Hal Lindsey is still on TV, and he's not the only one. Harold Camping's followers are still caravanning across America to proclaim the Second Coming on 21 May 2011, while televangelist Jack van Impe still leans toward 21 December 2012, to name but two more. These three have mutually exclusive ideas as to how our world will end, but they're all getting air time. There must still be plenty of money to be made by hawking the End of Days.
Note: some online reviews imply that the contents of this book have been altered over the years, even though the copyright date remains 1970 and no revised editions are indicated in the publication data. I found a copy printed in the 80s, and saw no obvious differences between it and my circa-2011 copy. If anybody has a copy that was printed with some certainty in the early 1970s, I'd love to take a look at it.
- Jim Dugan
May's Book Review
31 May 2011
Are We Living in the End Times? by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins is a comparatively light and readable introduction to "typical" End Times exegesis, if by "typical" one understands the Protestant, fundamentalist, and pre-millennial approach. At 370 pages it might appear lengthy, but the material is not at all dense, and is vastly more condensed than the thousands of pages these same authors have produced in their fictionalized version of the same theme, the (in)famous Left Behind series of novels and movies.
While differing in emphasis and detail from other writers on this topic, the general content runs along similar lines. The authors claim that literal interpretation of the Bible provides a vast amount of prophecy about the End of the World, and that time is almost up. There will be a Rapture, in which true believers will be taken into heaven to avoid the horrors of the Tribulation. The seven years of Tribulation will include plagues, wars, meteors striking the earth, massive earthquakes, supernatural stinging insects, and other horrors. An Antichrist will unify a beleaguered world and impose the Mark of the Beast on all who want to engage in commerce. World powers will almost destroy themselves at the battle of Armageddon, but Jesus will intervene, bind the devil and his minions, and rule the world for a thousand years of nearly perfect order. At the end of the Millennium there will be one final paroxysm of rebellion before the entire physical universe is wiped out of existence and remade in godly perfection. Unbelievers, of course, will burn in Hell for all eternity.
Explaining End Times prophecy is only one part of the authors' intent. They repeatedly invite the reader to convert, on one page even offering the words to use in prayer. They also hope their readers will take this kind of conversion viral, encouraging them to "greater efforts in evangelism," and to become "more missionary minded." These ideas are often presented after a particularly harrowing description of God's wrath, which will strike the skeptical reader as fear-mongering, the adult equivalent of telling the kiddies that "the boogieman will get them" if they don't behave.
Readers looking for hard argumentation as to why one ought to believe this particular form of biblical interpretation, or even an admission that most Christians think otherwise, will be disappointed. The authors clearly saw their audience as Protestant Christians already disposed to fear divine judgment and to interpret scripture in a literal sort of way. Where arguments are raised, they address only one particular interpretation of End Times prophecy versus another, not the validity of End Times theory in general.
There is a moderate amount of background theology presented here, and this is the book's most serious failing. The authors presume that their audience knows little of world history, political systems, or comparative religion. Their factual errors are egregious, and more educated readers can only find the authors' attempts in these areas ridiculous. This damages any credibility a more open minded secularist, or any other informed reader, might try to give to the book.
It is shocking, indeed, to learn that "long before the word for it had been coined, socialism had been a Babylonian philosophy for the conduct of government, commerce, and religion" (132), that "Babylon is where Satan located his headquarters." "Every false religion in the world can be traced back to Babylon," we are told, and that Satan himself introduced there the "foundational teachings for Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Gaia worship and a host of other cultic systems . . . " (172). Even after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, "the pagan practices and teachings of Babylon began to worm their way into Christianity. These included prayers for the dead, making the sign of the cross, worship of saints and angels, instituting the mass, and worship of Mary" (173). And never to miss a dig at anything secular or scientific, LaHaye and Jenkins write, "the theory of uniformitarianism, popularized in the mid-1800s by the English geologist Sir Charles Lyell, became a prominent foundation for Darwinism and evolution, Marxism and socialism, Freudianism and liberalism. It fostered many of the evils that beset our society today and is propagated by the most intellectually trained members of our society" (348). In fact, a great deal is revealed about the fundamentalist opposition to evolution in particular, and to science in general, when the authors write, "if you eliminate the biblical worldwide flood, as uniformitarians do, you remove a vital proof for the second coming of Christ. But if in fact there was a flood, then God really does judge sinful men, and there is good reason to believe He will come again to judge the world. If man accepts the reality of the Flood, he is pressed to accept the likelihood of Christ's second coming" (349). That is as succinct a summary of Creationist motivations as I've ever read.
It is easy to dismiss Are We Living in the End Times? as superstition by and for the unschooled. But the secular-minded ought not lose sight of the social phenomenon represented here. LaHaye and Jenkins have been tremendously successful with their books and movies, as have other self-styled prophets and prophet-interpreters. They reach millions. And let us not underestimate the mystical appeal of examining world events from within their frame of reference. Israel came back into existence in 1948. In 1967 Israeli forces took control of Old Jerusalem, supposedly bringing the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple one step closer. Before his execution Saddam Hussein devoted significant Iraqi funds to the reconstruction of the ruins of Babylon. To a certain kind of Christian these are all powerful symbols, echoes of ancient visions, indicators of the approach of the end of the history.
- Jim Dugan
April's Book Review
15 April 2011
Henry M. Morris (d. 2006) is well known to creationists and creationist-debaters as a founding member of the Institute for Creation Research and as an author and co-author of books that are still heavily cited by creationists, most notably The Genesis Flood (1961) and the Troubled Waters of Evolution (1982). I was recently prompted to read one of his more obscure books, The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth (1972), which Morris styled as "a brief summary of both Biblical and scientific reasons for believing in creation instead of evolution" (p. 4). In about 100 pages of light reading, Morris outlines much of the biblical-creationist platform as it still exists today. The book is out of print, possibly because some of today's creationists find it embarrassing. More than some of his other books, this one reveals how deeply the delusions of creationism can run.
As with much of creationist literature, it is difficult to estimate how much of the Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth is the result of earnest ignorance and how much comes from intentional dishonesty. Morris deserves at least some credit for acknowledging in his preface that he is starting with an a priori assumption that the biblical book of Genesis is literally true. This is one of the few statements in the book that is clearly both honest and scientifically accurate.
The first chapter discusses order and complexity, and shows that Morris didn't understand how the mechanisms of evolution work and didn't know how to calculate probabilities. He tells us that "the magic formula which transforms electrons into living cells and frogs into princes is 'random mutation and natural selection,' and the magic wand which makes it work is 'billions of years'" (6). The Theory of Evolution, of course, does not attempt to explain how life arose from non-living chemistry, and Morris is here building a straw man -- a misleading and easily undermined version of evolution -- by insinuating that it does. He does the same thing with astronomy, claiming that Darwinian Evolution has something to do with the evolution of stars from one type to another (57).
Morris proclaims (7-10) the mathematical improbability of organized systems arising from "disorder," claiming, for example, that an organism of only 200 parts (rounding down the number of bones in the human body) would have but one chance out of 200-factorial (a vast number) of arising randomly. He admits that some of his calculations aren't quite fair, because "the evolutionist does not visualize all parts being completely reshuffled at each step" (8).
But he keeps this improbability foremost in the mind of the reader by claiming that "the same selection process has to take place over and over again, and each time against greater odds than the time before" (7). Morris seems here not to understand what is and is not "random" about the process of evolution, that most individual steps in evolution are quite small, that each step is constrained in many ways by the existing structure of an organism, or that evolution operates only in each moment without any kind of long-term goals. In probabilistic terms, Morris forgets that the odds of my next coin toss coming up heads can never be anything other than 50-50, even after I've tossed five heads in a row.
Many of his other claims range from groundless speculation to simple falsehood. We are told (17-18) that God's original creation had no "disorder," and that all death, disease and decay come from The Curse that God pronounced in response to the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a claim that is repeated today at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY. The Second Law of Thermodynamics itself -- entropy, the tendency for systems to become more disorderly over time -- is the result of this Curse, we are told (18). Morris claims that the radiometric ages of rock strata "are only accepted if they happen to coincide with the assumed fossil age" (27).
He claims that the Noachic Flood was violent enough to sweep organic debris into great heaps that later became oil and coal deposits (28) and was violent enough to turn the "mild topography and pleasant climate of the old world" into the "rugged terrains, vast oceans, and violent climates of the new world" (29). Yet he also claims the Flood was gentle enough to preserve "ecological zones," explaining that fossils of simple marine creatures are in lower rock strata because they lived further down, while fossils of birds and mammals are in higher rock strata because those creatures lived higher up at the time the Flood struck (28).
His ideas about race are truly bizarre, and this might be one of the reasons creationists don't mention this book very often. Morris commits several pages (47-54) to an explanation of modern human populations in relation to the Genesis flood. All the peoples of today are descended from Noah's three sons. Caucasians, he explains, are descended from Japheth, and were ordained to make intellectual contributions to humankind, while Semites, the children of Shem, were to make a spiritual contribution. The offspring of Ham, everybody other than Semites and Caucasians, were fated to provide physical benefits to the others. Morris then claims (54) that this analysis is not "racial," because he's talking about "streams of nations," not races.
"Race," he would have us believe, "is strictly a category of evolutionary biology, not of Scripture at all." "Modern racism," he adds, "has always found its strongest and most vicious expressions among doctrinaire evolutionists" (55). One can only assume that Morris never read biology or anthropology texts published later than 1925, and was unaware that slave trading pre-dated Darwin by centuries.
Morris's grip on reality is at its weakest when he takes his presumption of biblical accuracy off planet to explain the observations of astronomy. It is by now banal to discuss his claim that God created light from distant stars already in transit, making it appear to us on earth that stars are older than they really are. He accepts as a given the notion that angels exist, and associates them with the stars, while admitting that nobody is very clear on the details of that association.
Morris also admits uncertainty about whether or not The Curse by which God brought decay into the world applies beyond the earth as well as upon it. The unavoidable observation that objects in space show signs of vulcanism, seismic activity, and meteor impacts seems to disturb his sense of divine orderliness. He can only speculate: "perhaps they reflect some kind of heavenly catastrophe associated either with Satan's primeval rebellion or his continuing battle against Michael and his angels."
- Jim Dugan
March's Book Review
23 March 2011
"Optimism is the opium of the people." Milan Kundera, "The Joke"
These words, written in an atmosphere of repression in Kundera's 1960s Yugoslavia, illustrate the central point of Barbara Ehrenreich's 2010 book Bright Sided: that positivity can be just as, if not more dangerous, than negativity. Specifically, she takes the reader on a journey into the positive thinking movement, from its beginnings in the 19th century in response to the dour "you're evil and gonna burn" stance of Calvinism to its role in U.S. political and economic affairs.
Ehrenreich's inspiration for the book was her experience as a breast cancer patient, in which informational literature, support groups, and particularly other patients put forth the view that not only was being positive a key to regaining one's health, but also the slightest negativity (say, being angry that you have cancer) would actually help the disease spread and, if you haven't always been sunshine and roses, may have been its original cause.
The bible of the modern positive-thinking police is the 2006 book The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. It and its imitators focus on "the law of attraction," ie, the idea that anything can be yours by focusing your mind and visualizing it. For instance, one might "manifest wealth" by imagining that Mercedes in the driveway consistently and by believing wholeheartedly that you can make it happen, no matter whether one has an income that would support its payments. Essentially, the whole concept comes down to magical thinking: ignoring facts and shielding oneself from reality. But money and good aren't the only areas where the law of attraction and its positive thinking brethren can be found: Ehrenreich discusses the phenomenon in a variety of areas: prosperity gospel, motivational speakers, medicine and the power of attitude, economics, etc.
Ehrenreich presents a much darker side to this magical thinking, which is among the areas where the book's subtitle-How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America-really comes into play. In creating a worldview in which positive and good are interchangeable, the opposite becomes true as well: if something bad befalls you, your own negativity must have attracted it. For example, in reference to the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Byrne noted that such disasters can only happen to those "on the same frequency as the event." Poverty, therefore, is a willful failure to embrace abundance, and sickness cannot happen in those with harmonious thoughts.
Perhaps nowhere has this magical thinking been more harmful and disastrous than in the economic realm. Ehrenreich, who has written extensively on the growing gap between rich and poor and the destruction of the middle class, discusses a corporate world in which motivational speakers are brought into companies, particularly after layoffs, to "discipline a demoralized workforce" and remind the remaining employees to fake those smiles or face the same fate. (Working in an organization that recently enacted a "no venting" rule while simultaneously sponsoring a workshop on how to think positive thoughts, this one hit close to home.)
Also, she identifies the role that positive thinking played in the real estate crash of the late 2000s. Parties that included homebuyers who overextended themselves (often based on the encouragement of prosperity preachers who told them God would provide the payments for that McMansion), regulatory agencies that refused to hear any negative word about the real estate market possibly falling, and Wall Street barons who fired analysts who gave bad news even if based in reality all combined to create a financial perfect storm, based in large part on the idea that to discuss the very real possibility of a real estate downturn would in and of itself make it happen.
In her conclusion, Ehrenreich stresses that we all need not be pessimistic curmudgeons. Pointing out that skepticism has led to most human advances over the eons, she notes that the key is to apply critical thinking skills, to base our actions in reason and common sense, and to be authentic.
- Rita Premo
February's Book Review
21 February 2011
This book is awesome, and you will be highly enlightened by what thinkers of today and in the past have said regarding religion/God/science, etc.
WARNING: This book is only for the open-minded!
Here is one of many of the gems I found in this book of 333 pages and over 1,200 quotes!
You don't think religion is dangerous? Consider this:
"Every fatih has its share of literalists ... But only within Islam is literalism fast becoming mainstream. We Muslims, even here in the West, are routinely raised to believe that the Koran is the final and therefore perfect manifesto of God's will ... This is dangerous, because when abuse happens under the banner of my faith as it is today, most Muslims have no clue how to debate, dissent, revise or reform ... because we have never been introduced to the possibility, let alone the virtue, of asking questions ..." Irshad Manji (1968- )
Take out the word Muslim, and insert the name of any other religion.
- William Gautreaux
January's Book Review
25 January 2011
Well, I am not science-enclined, but I have always felt woefully uneducated in the topic of evolution. It is such a hot topic in education and religion, I felt I owed it to myself to get the facts.
Fortunately, this book is very easy to understand for the "non-science" types. Plus, right on the back cover are glowing recommendations from three of my favorite authors, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Pinker. That was enough to convince me to buy the book.
I read it in about two weeks, and I found it fascinating.
Yep, the facts that support evolution are all there. There's no denying it. But I don't get all the fuss that the religionists make over it. Clearly, when the facts clash with religion, religionists just throw reason and facts to the wind and claim that the facts of science are not true. Unbelievable!
If you feel the need to learn what evolution is all about, this is a great book to read. The book presents evidence from many different branches of science.
- William Gautreaux
December's Book Review
30 December 2010
There are so many things to say about this book. One must keep in mind that it was written in 1968, and some of the views of sexuality are interesting. It's hard to write a complete review of the book without giving away the entire premise. However, I would like to comment on one passage I found quite fascinating and relevant to today's arguments about sexuality.
In one chapter Myra and Rusty are disucssing sexuality: heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality. Myra asks Rusty why he thinks that the latter two are wrong. He responds with some of the same tired arguments you hear today from the religious right: "It's not natural" he says, because "two men or two women cannot make a baby." Then, what Myra says next, I think, is brilliant. Myra asks, and I paraphrase, "So every time you and your girlfriend Mary-Ann have sex, you are trying to make a baby?" I love this question. Heterosexuals of the religious right today want to make us think that "sex for pleasure" is naughty and sinful. However, the belief that heterosexuals are trying to make a baby every time they have sex is ludicrous. How many of them are using birth control? Of course, most of the time, they are simply having sex for pleasure. But since homosexuals cannot "make a baby," then their sex is always for pleasure and thus must always be wrong, goes the thinking. How convenient to vilify gays for having "sex for pleasure." A bit hypocritical, huh?
- William Gautreaux
November's Book Review
18 November 2010
C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American
by Jeff Sharlet
This book is fascinating and a fast read. I finished it in four days. The book is divided into six chapters, each focusing on a different goal of "The Family," the group of fundamentalist U.S. Senators and Representatives, and others, who meet in a house on C Street in Arlington, Virgina, to study the Bible and talk about how to influence domestic and international politics with "the teachings of Jesus."
The chapter on the proselytization of Africa is most disturbing. The Family uses their power and clout as U.S. Congressmen to promote their brand of Christianity throughout Africa, but in a way they wouldn't dare try here in the States. What is an example of their fruits? Uganda proposed an "Anti-Homosexuality Bill" in early 2010. David Bahati (a Ugandan, educated partly in the U.S. and good buddies with several in The Family) is its main sponsor. The bill suggests the death penalty for all gays and jail time for those who "know of" a homosexual and do not report this to the authorities. When word of this atrocious bill got out, the American Congressmen and the fundamentalist preachers who had ties to Uganda, most notably Rick Warren, tried to weasel their way out of connections to this Death Bill, claiming that this is not what they had in mind when they went proselytizing Africa.
Another chapter, also disturbing, is the one on the Christianization of the U.S. military. Just recently, some soldiers in Virginia refused to attend a Christian music concert, and for that, they were told they had to stay behind and clean the barracks. An atheist friend of mine, a retired Marine, told me about how he was treated when the rest of the troops went off to church services on Sundays. He was allowed not to attend church services, but had to stay behind and clean the barracks. With such examples, with more in this book, the U.S. military is constantly in violation of our secular U.S. Constitution, but they are able to get away with it so often. When the U.S. is abroad fighting wars, such unconstitutional insertion of (Christian) religion into our military makes us look like we're on a Crusade to wipe out the non-Christians. Remember George W. Bush's frequent use of the word "evil" and "bad guys"?
This is actually a recent phenomenon in the military, since maybe the 1960's or early 1970's. Before that time, religion among soldiers was a completely private matter. What you believed was your private business. Today, as with many other aspects of American life, politics in particular, the military feels the need to wear religion on its sleeve.
Will we ever be able to separate Church and State as the founding fathers intended?
Yes, some of the founding fathers were Christian, but just because they were Christian doesn't make the Constitution a Christian document any more than a Woody Allen movie is an atheist movie just because he is atheist. Nowhere in our Constitution, the founding document of our government, are the words god, Christian, Jesus, or Bible ever mentioned.
We shall see what the future holds as the struggle to keep our government secular continues.
- William Gautreaux
October's Book Review
18 October 2010
Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment
by Phil Zuckerman
Is it possible to live a good, moral life and not be religious? Of course, it is, claims the author of this book! Phil Zuckerman spent a year living in Denmark with jaunts over to nearby Sweden to interview hundreds of Scandinavians about their religious beliefs.
What he discovered first and foremost is that the Scandinavians view religion as a private matter. What one personally believes about god and religion has absolutely no impact on other people's lives and is hardly ever discussed. By contrast, Americans tend to wear their religion on their sleeves, as a type of badge of a sign of one's personal virtue. The author goes into explicit details and offers explanations how America became a place of high, ostentatious religiosity while places like Denmark and Sweden became places where citizens regard their personal beliefs as just that, private.
Consider this. Denmark and Sweden are towards the top of the list in all these categories: low poverty rates, low crime rates, low teenage pregnancies, low abortion rates, high educational levels, low STD's, just to name a few. America, being a "Christian nation" as some claim and with its overt religiosity, should also top thoses lists. It doesn't. What does that say about the power of religion in America?
What struck me also in this book is the last chapter where the author explains the cultural differences between Americans and Danes, and how this affects how each group sees religion. He interviewed a religious Danish friend who came to spend a year in America. What is ironic is that this religious Dane was appalled by the religiosity of Americans, the "in-your-face" religion: from TV preachers, to billboards luring people to church, to politicians desperately trying to prove to you they are "America's best Christians," etc. This book is a very interesting read.
- William Gautreaux
September's Book Review
24 September 2010
The End of Faith:
Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris
All in all, I enjoyed this book. Some parts got very philosophical, so I really had to slow down, sometimes re-reading a paragraph, or even a page or two!
The best chapter in the book is "What's Wrong With Islam?" The chapter went into great depth trying to explain the history of Islam and what it's trying to achieve in this 21st century.
It helped me better understand the clash between Islam and the modern world. The other chapters are all very good, and I think Harris does a very in-depth analysis of all his chapter-topics (only 7 chapters). His treatment of the topic is a bit more philosophical than Dawkins or Hitchens.
I like all three authors, and they all offer great insight and common sense to the often crazy world of religion.
- William Gautreaux
August's Book Review
22 August 2010
Battle for the Mind:
A Subtle Warfare
by Tim LaHaye
Many NOSHA members will recognize Tim LaHaye as the (in)famous co-author of the Left Behind series, more than a dozen works of speculative fiction about what might happen on earth between the Rapture and the Second Coming. Fewer of us may be aware that LaHaye is also a prolific writer of non-fiction with a Christian bent. Recently, I've had the pleasure of teaching a course in the anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft and Religion, and in an effort to include the modern, fundamentalist, Christian perspective, I've required my students to read one of LaHaye's serious works.
Battle for the Mind is both Christian apologetics and a call to political and social action. It was first published in 1980, just as the relationship between the Republican Party and the Religious Right was shifting from platonic to sexual. Paralleling the development of that religio-political movement, the book was repackaged and re-released in 2000 with a new title: Mind Siege: The Battle For The Truth. I use the 1980 edition in my class because I find it to be a more honest statement of the fundamentalist perspective, and because it is out of print, so we can buy used copies without putting money in the author's pocket.
Battle for the Mind is either dishonest or ignorant in its treatment of historical and scientific facts, but is quite honest in one important regard: it plainly states that it promotes a theistic view in opposition to the modern, materialist, humanist worldview. As LaHaye puts it, "most of the evils in the world today can be traced to humanism," (p. 9) and "humanism ultimately destroys everything it touches" (p. 43). To save America from itself, Christians must "remove all humanists from public office and replace them with pro-moral political leaders" (p. 10).
LaHaye's summary of humanism is reasonably accurate from a religious perspective: it's "man's attempt to solve his problems independently of God" (p. 26). But from that point on he spin-doctors the facts. He claims, for example, that humanism is itself a religion, and its "five basic tenets" are atheism, evolution, amorality, autonomous self, and a "Socialist one-world view " (p. 57). He describes humanist ideals by quoting from Humanist manifestos I and II, and at length from Corliss LaMont's The Philosophy of Humanism, selecting the passages that seem most scandalous to him. This ploy really doesn't work, at least not on the astute reader, who can't help but wonder what's so bad about legal equality for all, an unfettered right to read, or a freedom of religion that includes the freedom from religion.
LaHaye is at his weakest when he tries to undermine the historical and scientific bases of humanism, and some of his abuses of the facts go beyond ridiculous. He asserts, for example, that "our unique check-and-balance system of government would never have been conceived by humanism. It is borrowed directly from scripture" (39). Oddly, for an evangelist, he fails here to cite chapter and verse. He claims that somehow Christianity is scientific and humanism isn't, that technological progress is somehow dependent on knowing that the universe runs according to divinely established rules, and that "atheistic humanists, obsessed with unguided and continual change, would have had us back in the Dark Ages, where they were still attempting to trial-and-error their theories" (101). It isn't clear whether LaHaye himself doesn't know, or just hopes his readers don't know, that the Dark Ages were dominated by a Christian worldview, that subsequent scientific and technological progress depended on methodological materialism, or that the U.S. Constitution is firmly based in the non-theistic philosophy of the 18th-century Enlightenment.
All too typically, his challenges to Evolution rely heavily on making it appear that some solidly evolutionary scientists had more doubts than they actually had. For example, on page 61 he quotes from D'arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form, a seminal work in mathematical biology. The quote contains two elisions (properly marked with dots), with the result that the reader gets the impression that Thompson had serious reservations about Darwin's theory. But checking Thompson's original text, it is instantly clear that Thompson has no such doubts, and that the elided material was critical to understanding that.
In fact, within two pages of the material quoted by LaHaye, Thompson explicitly states that his observations are "no argument against evolutionary descent" (p. 1094, in the edition of 1948). We might be tempted to let LaHaye off the hook on this point, since he actually took the Thompson quote from a third source, a book titled Secular Humanism: The Most Dangerous Religion in America, by Homer Duncan (in other words, it was Duncan who first fudged what Thompson wrote, and LaHaye is just copying that fudge uncritically). Not checking the original source, though, is sloppy technique at best, whether we judge LaHaye's writing as academic or journalistic.
The 2000 rerelease has been significantly restructured, but is still stridently anti-humanist. In the 1980 edition he predicted that the 1980s would be decade of battle over religious rights and that basic freedoms would be lost in America by the year 2000. Any mention of these or other inconveniently dated predictions have been dropped in the 2000 edition. Gone too are the lengthy quotes from Corliss LaMont, apparently recognizing that they made humanism sound too appealing. These have been replaced with quotations from conservative columnist Cal Thomas, and occasionally even Anne Coulter, although I am at a loss to explain how LaHaye thought these would help his case. And even though they had twenty years to look it up, the 2000 edition still has the misleadingly doctored quote from D'arcy Thompson.
One important improvement is that the 2000 edition gives us a chapter and verse to support the claim that the U.S.system of government is biblical. For this LaHaye cites Isaiah 33:22, although he doesn't quote it, and I can only imagine that he hopes nobody looks it up. It's a stretch, but that verse can be interpreted as at least mentioning three branches of government: "For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our King; He will save us."
- Jim Dugan
July's Book Review
19 July 2010
How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists
by Dan Barker
Dan Barker is a wonderful writer, and writes in such a clear and very comprehensible manner ... and he is often funny! He was a "You need to come to Jesus!" evangelical preacher for 19 years, so he knows the arguments religionists use to defend everything from "The Bible is the word of God" to "Atheists are immoral and have no meaning in their life."
His story of how he went from blind faith as a preacher to a humanist using his mind and reason is fantastic. Dan says "I finally realized that faith is a cop-out, a defeat -- an admission that the truths of religion are unknowable through evidence and reason."
Here are some of my favorite quotes: "We atheists believe in life BEFORE death. Before we were born, there was a very long time, perhaps an eternity when we did not exist, and it did not bother us one bit. The same will be true after we are dead. What matters is that we are alive NOW." Given this, he says that "Atheism actually enhances the value of life" instead of living for some uncertain better after-life in heaven. I love what he says about religious hell: "Hell is an incentive to a phony morality."
In other words, if the only reason you want to be a "moral" person is that God is threatening you with hell, what kind of morality is that? Dan says "Be good for goodness sake!" A great read for all those interested in reason with respects to religion.
- William Gautreaux
June's Book Review
13 June 2010
God and the New Atheism:
A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens
by John F. Haught, December 2007, Westminster John Knox Press, ISBN 978-0664233044
This book contains very weak arguments, if you can call what Haught wrote in this book arguments at all. He seems to keep coming back to admitting that "Faith is belief without evidence." He has no solid reasons for convincing the reader that one should believe without any evidence. I didn't find any logical reasons for believing without evidence, as he suggests throughout the book.
Haught tries to discredit the three authors (Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens) by saying that they don't "really know anything about theology." You really need a college course/degree in theology to "really understand what the scriptures are trying to say."
One of my favorite illustrations of this lunacy is when he uses the story of Abraham and Isaac as an example. Haught says that when readers find this story morally repulsive (God asked Abraham to murder his son Isaac to "test his faith"), they really shouldn't see it as the gruesomely immoral and murderous story that it is .. they should not be offended. If we see the story in this light, we are only giving it a "plain reading" (i.e. unscholarly). What we're really supposed to get from the story is the "florid motifs of promise, fidelity and liberation ..." Oh, please! Haught attempts to cover up this story of attempted homicide with pretty words. Sorry, I didn't identify with those "florid motifs" when I read the story of Abraham and Isaac from the "holy scriptures" myself.
How can you take away anything good from such a reprehensible Bible story? Do people really read these kinds of stories to their children with a straight face, believing that they're instilling "morality"? This is only one example of how Haught tries to counter Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. Most of what he writes is quite honestly, boring.
I read this book because I wanted to see what the other side was saying about these three authors' blockbuster books. Well, Haught really doesn't say much and offers no good, solid arguments to believe in god or the Bible.
- William Gautreaux
February's Book Review
True North: Exploring the Great Wilderness by Bush Plane.
by George Erickson, Thomas Allen Publishers, Toronto, CA. Globe Pequot/Lyons Press, New York, NY
Remember how creationists hid their intent by running stealth campaigns for school boards? Well, here's a great response from American Humanist Association board member George Erickson, whose adventure/travel best seller True North... tucks candid criticism of creationists and missionary practices between tales of polar bears and killer whales while promoting the science that makes our standard of living possible.
As the author wings past Manitoba's Lake Winnipeg - a remnant of Glacial Lake Agassiz - he tells of Louis Agassiz, the Swiss naturalist and the lake's namesake who put the nails in the coffin of the Biblical Flood mythology. Later, while examining a bedrock chip of the Canadian Shield, he describes how we've come to know the age of the earth, beginning with St Augustine's effort and the even more inaccurate reckoning later made by an Irish Bishop named Ussher.
A visit to 40-cannon Fort Prince of Wales on the shores of Hudson Bay provides an opportunity to compare the ethics of Moses Norton, its debauched, bible-waving 18th century commander who murdered two of his wives, to those of his contemporary - a highly ethical atheist Cree chief named Matonabbee.
On the barren shores of Baker Lake, NWT, he describes the abuse suffered by native children who were forced to attend Catholic and Anglican schools, and tells of the often-reprehensible missionary treatment of natives. A later chapter chides an anti-evolution evangelist who is peddling his wares on the streets of Juneau.
As they say - there is more to a book than its cover - and this truly applies to True North. Besides delivering marvelous tales of adventures with musk oxen, caribou, polar bears and some of the North Country's characters, Erickson's True North introduces new and unsuspecting minds to the way freethinkers operate. As a consequence, True North makes a marvelous birthday or graduation present.
Darwin, Diamonds, Death and Deceit - True North has them all! -Originally published in NOSHA News Winter 2003
January's Book Review
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Daniel Dennett, 2006, Viking (Penguin)
There are few times in my life where I've experienced "revelation." Not in the religious sense, but in the sense of scientific enlightenment.
Even though my education and career is in engineering, I've made it a point to become familiar with the science of evolution. However, I've always unknowingly limited my learning to the perspective of biological adaptation. Dennett's book brought the realization crashing home that our brains and therefore our thought processes are just as much a product of evolution as being bipedal or having opposable thumbs.
Furthermore, just as it is inevitable that other species want to use us for food, shelter, and propagation, (rats, cockroaches, tape worms, to name but a few) exactly the same is true for our brains. Using Dawkins' principal of memes that was proposed in The Selfish Gene, (1976), (memes are analogous to genes, in that they're cultural ideas or patterns of behavior that are passed from one person to another, or "replicated" by non-genetic imitation), Dennett defines religion as a natural phenomenon that has evolved to take advantage of natural cognitive thought mechanisms. Just as a forest of trees has crawling plants, woodpeckers, and burrowing insects, why wouldn't a "forest" of six billion human brains have its own parasitic infestations?
Dennett is the most accommodating of the original New Atheists in that he bends over backwards to the theistic reader. This will be a point of irritation for an atheistic reader. The first several chapters of the book are Dennett proposing theistic ideas and then saying, "You may be right, but let's take a look and find out?" The obvious intension of this intellectual "tickling" is to draw theists in to consider his reasoning. This becomes obvious in later chapters where he lays down his well thought out arguments. But even then, there are numerous appeals to the theistic reader for intellectual honesty in an attempt to prevent having his half-read book thrown in the trash.
One practical recommendation he makes is the compulsory teaching in public schools, private schools and even home schools of other major religions. He proposes that if we educate our children about the creeds and customs, prohibitions and rituals and the texts and music of alternate world religions they'd be able to make a more informed choice. As a product of the British school system, I couldn't agree more! I had a class called Religious Education and I can remember the teacher explaining that "in this part of the world people believe this, and in that part of the world, people believe that"! It was as bizarre to me then as a 12-year-old as it is to me now. He goes on to challenge theistic parents that if they have a problem with this, then what they're actually saying is that they want to keep their child living in ignorance. Who can argue with that?
His conclusion, which is a big pill to swallow for the religious, is to "break the spell" of religious reverence and analyze belief as we do in the pharmaceutical industry, the petroleum industry or any other world influencing organization. Religion has built a social wall of defense against scientific inquiry that, if attempts are made to breach it, the results vary from mild disapproval to hostility and even violence.
There was a time when it wasn't illegal to drink and drive a motor vehicle. Way back then, the inevitable accidents were blamed on the alcohol as opposed to the individual. Can you imagine a world where the inebriated were not just overlooked but socially revered? This book helps us to see the problems caused by untested religious belief in modern society from the same lens.
December's Book Review
Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder.
Richard Dawkins, 1998, Houghton Mifflin Co.
The title of this book comes from a line in John Keats' poem 'Lamia.' In one verse of that poem, Keats accused Newton of unweaving the rainbow, having destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining the physical principles that result in the formation of rainbows. Dawkins, in defense of Newton, argues through many enlightening examples that an understanding of our physical reality in terms of its own laws leads to an appreciation of beauty and intricacies of the world in ways that Keats could never have imagined.
Starting with light and what can be known about distant stars by the properties of the light they emit (after it is scientifically unwoven), Dawkins explores our current understanding and its limits with an uncanny ability to draw the reader into his sense of wonder. The breadth of his exploration is impressive: cells, stars, genes, fossils, our brain, and more. To accentuate the magnitude of Keats' error, Dawkins laces his scientific explanations in almost every chapter with appropriate poetry and poetic prose from Yeats, Lawrence, Nehru, Wordsworth, and Feynman , among many others. Coming from a scientific background, I was unappreciative of the interlaced poetry at first, preferring more straight-line prose, but I warmed to it and found it effective in the end.
Keats' disappreciation of science is still with us today, even if it is not as poetic. Dawkins convincingly argues that there is a real danger in the widening gap between scientific progress and the scientific literacy of the populace. Because humans have a sense of wonder, and because science is often hard to understand, there is a ready market for pseudoscientific explanations, simply because they are easier. The gap is also easily exploited by lawyers attempting to plant doubt in the minds of jurors who must decide a case based on DNA evidence that appears incontrovertible to those who understand the methods and jargon. Antiscientific attitudes grow because of the gap; because as Dawkins admonishes, scientists are not actively engaged in explaining their science to the public. If the gap is not narrowed, science is in danger of becoming ever more marginalized as a basis for understanding anything important to the growing mass of the scientifically illiterate.
The poet and the scientist, although very far apart in their craft, are, as Dawkins argues, motivated by the same sense of wonder. Where one draws on the mystical and supernatural to express awe, the other brings reason and imagination in attempt at deeper understanding. In the end, Dawkins accomplishes his goal of showing that within our understanding of rainbows lies a more awe-inspiring sense of wonder.