Monday, June 28, 2010

Mid Year Book Review 2010 (January - June)

Here are the books I've read so far this year and some quick thoughts about why I did or did not like them. I have no illusions of being an accomplished book critic. I just like to read and learn. I was thinking last night as I fell asleep that with a humble book collection, a human being can open a thousand doors into other worlds. This is perhaps the greatest characteristic of our species. Not only to conjure other worlds but to write them down and share them with each other. Knowledge isn't only power, it's also joy. Here's to hoping we never lose the desire to read and to learn.

"Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A" edited by Robert Mayhew

This was such a joy to read. Ayn Rand’s wit, humor, and moral conviction shine in all of her great works. But this particular collection of interviews really gives the reader a more candid view of her personality. Her ability to answer questions powerfully and quickly is a testament to her sharp mind and her great thoughtfulness. I was recently lambasted on a popular Christian website devoted to heretics (I won’t link that garbage here) and one of the main things this group of believers criticized me at length about was my affection for this author. Of all the things about me that are worthy of criticism, I think digging Ayn Rand may be rather low on the list.

"God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Victor Stenger

This book is interesting because it makes claims that are rare in the world of non-theism. Traditionally the atheist position is not the assertion that there are no gods, but the disbelief in any gods. Both sides of the debate generally concede that God’s existence and nonexistence are equally improvable. An atheist would indeed be unjustified if she did not reserve judgment until all the evidence was in. Victor Stenger is not claiming that science disproves all possible gods, only the ones that are testable. What are testable gods? These are gods that intervene in the natural world by answering prayers, controlling weather, healing the sick, parting seas, etc. It is clear from the holy books that the three main monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) proclaim the existence of such gods. Stenger's book is a serious scientific approach to these hypotheses. As the title suggests, none of them meet any legitimate scientific criteria and therefore the book concludes that the god hypothesis fails. While I generally adopt a more skeptical posture, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the scientific ramifications of believing in God.

"Godless: How an Evangelical Pastor Became One of America’s Leading Atheists" by Dan Barker

I feel especially connected to Dan Barker not only because he was a devout evangelical Christian but also because he was a successful Christian musician, contributing to many acclaimed worship projects during his believing years. This book is a well written and impassioned account of why he could no longer be a minister and eventually why he could no longer be a Christian. Barker is humorous and easy to read while simultaneously making very cohesive and sophisticated arguments for leaving the faith. This is one of the top five books I would recommend to a person struggling with belief. Dan Barker now is the head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation , which is the largest atheist organization in the country. He runs FFRF with his lovely wife, Laurie Annie Gaylor who is the author of the tremendous books Women Without Superstition: No Gods, No Masters and Woe To Women: The Bible Tells Me So. I encourage my female readers to check those books out.

"Atheist Universe: the Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism" by David Mills

I loved this book. David Mills is perhaps the most quirky atheist writer I have read. If you don’t believe me just check out his YouTube channel where you can behold his amazing orange afro and hear him croon old country ballads. Aside from the funny stuff, this book contained some really great arguments, the best from a scientific point of view. His most interesting argument is on the conservation of mass/energy in response to the “something cannot come from nothing” rhetoric so often espoused by cosmologist apologists. Atheist Universe was a top seller on for several years. Do yourself an amazing favor and read it.

"Can We Be Good Without Gods? Biology, Behavior and the Need to Believe" by Robert Buckman

I purchased this book because I was interested in what an acclaimed Christian doctor had to say about morality and belief. I was hoping that, although a believer, he would have some legitimate scientific ideas to offer this arduous topic. No such luck. This book makes the same straw man arguments about how we would all basically rape and kill each other without God and ends with a lengthy and boring presentation of the gospel. Nearly all of his appeals are to the Bible, which is ineffectively circular for a non-theist. I cannot imagine why he wrote it or, for that matter, why anyone thought this book would be at all helpful. It reminded me of last year’s snore fest, Ravi Zacharias’ The End of Reason but worse, which is frankly remarkable.

"The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture" by Darrel W. Ray

For the most part this is an objective look at how religion functions like a virus within culture. How it infects communities and families, bulwarks itself against other viruses and immunities and passes itself from generation to generation. It is very clever and well written and was really interesting to read after spending nearly ten years in evangelical Christianity. I think the virus analogy gets a little overused but for the most part this book is insightful and fair. The last few chapters deal gracefully with finding meaning in the world without religion. This book got several notable endorsements but the one I find most interesting is this one by Frank Schaeffer, author and son of renowned theologian, Francis Schaeffer:

“I am a religious person, a churchgoer. Nevertheless, this one of a kind book was a vital reminder of the fact that we need to look objectively at what religion does to us.”

So there you have it, brethren. Frank Schaeffer digs it. Now go get it!

"Irreligious: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up" by John Paulos

This was an enjoyable read that looks at some of the more sophisticated arguments for god’s existence and effectively dashes them to shreds. It deals humorously with several different Ontological arguments. Paulos is great because he isn't as self serious as other authors on this subject but his arguments are nevertheless airtight.

"The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and
Reason" by Victor Stenger

This is Stenger’s follow up to the aforementioned, God: The Failed Hypothesis. In this book he basically sums up the “new atheism” movement by introducing the main authors and their more notable arguments. He also spends about half of the book responding to some of the criticism for his arguments in God: The Failed Hypothesis. Stenger is a lot of fun to read and his works are filled with great science.

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O’Connor

This is my favorite, and probably the best known, collection of short stories by the lovely Ms. O’Connor. A few years ago someone sent me an mp3 of Flannery reading the titular story at Notre Dame towards the end of her life. If you think the story itself is haunting, wait until you hear it read by a properly southern lady. Terrifying in a totally awesome way! Favorites are “The Life You Save Might Be Your Own”, “Good Country People”, and “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.”

"Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O’Connor

This was the collection of stories Flannery was working on when she passed away of lupus in 1964. It contains some of her best stories and causes quite a pain in the heart when considering the great work that could have been written had she lived longer. Favorites are “Greenleaf”, “Parker’s Back”, and “Judgment Day.”

"The Atheist’s Way: Living Well Without Gods" by Eric Maisel

This one was the greatest struggle to read. I picked it up in the Castro district of San Francisco because it got a great endorsement from David Mills, whose work I enjoyed. Maisel is a nationally known creative coach which means he spends a lot of his time helping artists realize their full artistic and creative potential. I dig that. For realsies. However, his attempts to extrapolate that over to atheism and the search for meaning without gods comes across pretty flat in this book. I don’t recommend it unless you’re interested in a lot of fuzzy words about “being your own meaning maker.” No thanks.

"Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story" by Chuck Klosterman

Me and Chuck Klosterman would be best friends. I know a lot of hipsters and post-hipsters have probably thought and/or said that exact sentence, but I think in my case it might actually be true. Why do I think this? Because Chuck Klosterman is the only other legitimately cool guy in the world who is as obsessed with the band KISS as I am. That’s right. KISS. There is a chapter in this book that explains the intricacies of falling in and out of love through the examination of all four KISS solo albums from the late seventies. I didn’t like it because it was a unique and awesomely nerdy way of unfolding ideas about love. I didn’t like it because I think Ace Frehley is pretty cool. I liked it because literally every word of it made sense in my KISS infatuated brain. If that is not badass then I quite honestly have no idea what is. Oh and the rest of the book is cool, too.

"Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris

This is the follow up to Harris’ 2004 national best seller, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason.” I read this book for the first time last year and was quite literally blown away. Sam Harris is easily one of the clearest communicators on the subjects of faith and reason. He argues passionately but without the characteristic flare of someone like Hitchens or Dawkins. His education is well grounded in world religion and moral philosophy and he has a PHD in neuroscience. Whenever someone asks me for a few recommendations for atheist reading I always include this one because it is short and powerfully reasonable.

“The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" edited by John W. Loftus

John W. Loftus, a former evangelical preacher, became popular after publishing his first book, “Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity.” He studied under renowned Christian apologist William Lane Craig and now runs an influential blog called Debunking Christianity. This book is a thorough collection of essays from an assortment of scientists, professors and biblical scholars aimed at criticising Christianity from multiple fronts. The most interesting essays were on the cognitive science of belief and the problem of evil from the perspective of the immeasurable suffering in the animal kingdom. There are also brilliant essays on the nature of Hitler’s religiosity, the immorality of Christianity, and the (lack of) historical evidence for Jesus and the resurrection. It is a fatal blow to Christian faith and I challenge any of my thoughtful Christian friends to read it and prove me wrong.

“Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” by Bart Ehrman (May)

I don’t think most Christians realize that the collection of books we call the New Testament actually comes from copies of copies of copies of copies that are literally centuries removed from the originals, which were themselves written by non-eyewitnesses decades after the events of Jesus’ life took place. I don’t think most Christians realize that the earliest copies we have were transcribed by amateur scribes during a time when theological differences ruled the day. And lastly, I don’t think most people realize that there as many discrepancies between the NT manuscripts as there are words in the New Testament itself. This is arguably the most important book for any believer to read. If any of you have read it I would love to know your thoughts. This dude is a textual criticism Jedi.

"Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are" by Frans de Waal

This book was a lot of fun to read. Frans de Waal is a world renowned primatologist but he has spent a lot of his career specifically studying the bonobo. A lot of people do not know about the bonobo but they are our closet primate cousins along with chimpanzees and our more distant cousins, gorillas and orangutans. This book focuses on the bonobo and the chimpanzee as a way of understanding some aspects of human behavior. Bonobos are interesting because for a long time nobody knew they existed. Due to their close resemblance to chimpanzees they were not categorized into a different species until 1928. What makes bonobos remarkable is that many of their troops in the wild are matriarchal and not dominated by an alpha male. Bonobos are overwhelmingly more docile primates and are generally predispositioned towards sexual activity. In other words, they are the lovers. This book contained many fascinating stories of chimps and bonobos exemplifying emotions that were long thought to be solely human. Things like love, monogamy, altruism, the ability to recognize reflections and faces, and even homosexuality. Super fascinating read.

"Karl Marx" by David McLellan(May)

This was a well written biography of the ever interesting Karl Marx. It presented a clear and concise evolution of Marx’s philosophy and work. This book got me interested in a lot of what I’m reading now about Lenin, Stalin and Hitler.

"The Hellbound Heart" by Clive Barker (June)

I find it remarkable that in his very first novella Clive Barker was able to create one of the most feared and beloved monsters in the history of horror: Pinhead. The Hellbound Heart is the story of a man who has tasted all of the desires of the flesh and yet remains insatiable. Along his travels he discovers a mythology about a puzzle box that, when solved, unleashes indescribable pleasures from another world. He, of course, finds the box and solves the puzzle unlocking a gateway into a hell he could never have imagined. This book is disturbing, but in all the right ways. It is one of my favorites by far.

"Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul" by Kenneth R. Miller (June)

This is a book written by an evangelical Christian defending the theory of evolution and taking a serious critical stance on Intelligent Design theory. The author never really betrayed his personal views of God and instead opted to fill this book with as much good science as possible. He profoundly succeeds which gives me a lot of hope for theistic evolutionists. If you’re a believer on the fence about evolution and feel anxiety about reading an atheist’s take on it, do yourself a favor and get this book immediately.

"Thomas Jefferson: Author of America" by Christopher Hitchens (June)

It is refreshing to read Christopher Hitchens write about something other than religion. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve really enjoyed his work on the subject. Most people just don’t realize what an amazing writer he is on a variety of topics, particularly history and politics. It is fitting that he should write this book as he is arguably a bigger fan of Jefferson than most Americans. Last year on tour in Charlottesville I was fortunately able to visit Monticello, Jefferson’s amazing, self-designed home and see where he spent his last days. Thomas Jefferson was a lover of books, knowledge, science, and the enlightenment. He was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence and was responsible for some of the major events of America’s history including the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A true renaissance man, he was a horticulturist, architect, archeologist, paleontologist, musician, inventor, and founder of the University of Virginia. In other words, he was a badass. Can you imagine our con temporary presidents being so accomplished?

"The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution" by Richard Dawkins (June)

This book is a great reminder that Dawkins is a superb popularizer of science as well as a scholarly evolutionary biologist and polemicist. He powerfully and clearly articulates all of the wonderful evidences for evolution from the success of artificial selection in plants and animals to the cousinship of all living creatures through DNA to the breathtaking fossil record. There are really great chapters on watching natural (specifically, sexual) selection in laboratories and thoughtful debunking of creation science and its costume, Intelligent Design theory. This book is a must read for anyone who loves evolution because it is less of a defense and more of a celebration.


bruce said...

i've not read that Ehrman but i have read the orthodox corruption scripture, numerous essays and textual criticism about greek texts, lost scriptures, and a handfull of others. he's obviously extremely intelligent and a killer textual critic. that said, please recognize his conclusions are on the fringes of mainstream textual criticism and history. the book he wrote with bruce metzger in 2005 would be a much more balanced approach since metzger dampens some of ehrman's fundamentalist tendencies.

read lots of ehrman and you learn he's got a pretty big ax to grind and it permeates all of his writing.

Clint Wells said...

Bruce - we'll see. I plan on reading his other books this year.

bruce said...

have you ever considered tackling some philosophy, particularly philosophy of meaning and language. i've gone on and on about the Kuhn book, structure of scientific revolutions. what about E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, or Derrida - Writing and Difference, or on the religious level Vanhoozer's Is There a Meaning in this Text, or how about some sociology of religion Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopy. These are all categories that Ehrman is ignoring in many respects.

I guess i don't see how you are ever going to make the move from evidential rationilism and materialism or scientism (what you call pearlism, is there a difference? have you read Comte?) to meaning. How do you explain joy, sadness, love, connection, history, meaninfulness of your actions, the 'why' of life - without ever entering into philosophy?

The authors you're reading at the moment seem to me to be a lot better at tearing down than at building up. Ehrman isn't looking to lead people towards something, he seems hell bent on making sure they don't follow down the road of orthodoxy. Same with Hitchens and Dawkins from my reading. They're not positing a philosophy or trying to explain meaning (and to the extent they do they've been laughed at at the academy - basically a ton of the criticism against these guys is they're killer scientist and terrible philosophers, which may simply be academic penis envy, butit seems a pretty consistent critique).

so, i'd like to hear it from you - why does your life, this life having meaning. where does an ethic and more importantly an aesthetic come from a pearlist perspective.

bruce said...

i obviously don't agree with all of this, but here's an interesting piece, referencing dawkins, and one of my favorite Wittgenstein, on the use of soul talk in the university. I think this guy is buddhist. again - i'm not endorsing all the conclusions or the methodology, just trying to highlight some of the questions he's asking -

Clint Wells said...

bruce - There was a period when I was reading a lot of philosophy. I had a bit of a romance with several of the existentialist thinkers. These days the only philosophy I really delve into are Ayn Rand, Bertrand Russell and Daniel Dennett. I’m generally pretty bored by philosophy, honestly. I’d much rather read about science and experience. I’m not saying it’s better. It’s just my personal preference.

I subscribe to methodological naturalism and pearlism simply because they have the greatest track record of success in building models that correspond to observable reality. But I also regard methodological naturalism and pearlism with a slight posture of skepticism as well. If supernatural phenomena were to present themselves to me tomorrow I would take it very seriously, as would most people like me who value observable reality.

How do you explain joy, sadness, love, connection, history, meaningfulness [sic] of your actions, the 'why' of life - without ever entering into philosophy?

Evolutionary biology provides many reasonable naturalistic explanations for emotions like joy, sadness and love. Neurobiology has taught us that these things are purely material constructs of our brains. For instance, you can damage certain parts of your brain and not only stop loving your spouse of fifty years but also have no recollection of ever knowing them. Studies have shown that there are vast and intricate neurological centers in our brain for all of our emotions.

Meaningfulness and the “why of life” are really great questions. I think it’s really important when talking about meaning not to lose sight of the fact that believing in things for poor reasons gets us no closer to answering our deepest questions. In fact, things like pseudoscience and religion, in my opinion, are inhibitors to getting to the bottom of those questions. For the human species the search for meaning continues and at this point the most intellectually honest thing one can say in answer is “I don’t know." And we may never know.

Personally, I find meaning in my life when I make music. When I spend time with people that I love and am loved by. Beholding the cosmos and basking in an overwhelmingly prosperous age of scientific achievement. About 98% of all humanity have never flown on an airplane or seen a galaxy explode or watched a motion picture or wasted numerous hours laughing into the night at YouTube videos. There is meaning in grace and giving and human solidarity. There is meaning in being affected by kindness and spreading it around. None of these things require unfounded beliefs in father figure gods who live outside of space and time. We are here and now in the wonderful world of naturalism.

I don’t think you’re in the best position to judge the authors’ intent after admitting that you have not read their work, particularly with Ehrman. Speculation about Ehrman’s motives is as subjective as its source. You may not consider his work to be leading anyone towards anything. That’s fine. But why can’t you see that leading someone out of something might also be leading them towards something else? Ehrman and many of the atheists I read are not trying to brainwash people. They are encouraging people to think skeptically about long held beliefs that have been, for the most part, immune to criticism. The horrifying marriage of religious fundamentalism and destructive technology has caused a reasonable sense of urgency in the nontheistic community. Not an urgency for intolerance, but for critical thinking and conversational, social pressure. Because if religion is stripped of its armor it simply will not survive in the marketplace of ideas. This will be progress for human kind.

Four2aBar said...

Hey Clint,

I'm reading the Ehrman book Misquoting Jesus and also have his Jesus Interrupted, and God's Problem.

Also way into Dan Barker's Godless. As a former Fundamentalist (and Jazz Musician myself, as Dan is too) I must say that this book REALLY resonates. I don't think there are any really credible philosophical arguments against his reasoning concerning the conflicting message in the Bible.

This Biblical "god of unconditional love and boundless mercy" surely manages to unmercifully dispose of huge chunks of humanity.


Clint Wells said...

Brian - I'm about to start reading those other Ehrman books as well. What do you thinka about Bruce's opinion of Ehrman?

It seems to me that many of his points are indisputable, despite a disaffection for his emotionally charged writing. His description of the origins of the New Testament is widely recognized in the community of biblical scholars. I was even taught some of that stuff in my super conservative bible college.

And as far as the "tearing down" criticism, just think of the thousands of books published a year by religious writers condemning other religions and nonbelievers. Most religions make incompatible claims about reality. Browse an apologetics section in a seminary library. The annals of religious literature are filled with accusations about who is right and who is wrong. What's worse, the soil of the Earth is soaked in blood over the same disagreements.

This is hardly analagous to promoting skepticism and ratiionality, which is all Ehrman is doing.

bruce said...

erhman's opinion of the origins of the NT are widely accepted. what's not widely accepted is what the textual history means and the motives behind what drove that textual history.

i've read a good amount of Ehrman so i'm not making a real blind assessment here.

lastly - i want to know WHY music is meaningful to you and why that is something you think you should privilege over other things. For instance - why should you not find meaning in sex with young boys, or with eating other humans, or with stealing, or with lying? And if the apprehension of beauty and the joy thereby (what i assume is part of what's meaningful about music) why is that meaningful if it's only a bunch of neural connections?

lastly, your response to the tearing down comment, that religious people tear down to, isn't really dealing with the question or criticism. i agree, religious people tear down also. so what?

Clint Wells said...

Bruce - I stand corrected on your assessment of Ehrman.

As far a your continued questions about meaning, I'm hesitant to even dignify those questions with a response. Just because you can order words into a sentence that makes a question doesn't mean the question makes sense or is worth answering. But here goes.

"i want to know WHY music is meaningful to you and why that is something you think you should privilege over other things."

Music is meaningful to me because it makes me happy. It also makes other people happy. That is enough.

"why should you not find meaning in sex with young boys, or with eating other humans, or with stealing, or with lying?"

I don't find meaning in sex with children, eating people, stealing, or lying because those things do not make me happy. Meaning is subjective and therefore I recognize that some people do value those things. Because those things are fringe values that are detrimental to community happiness, those people are taken out of communities. And rightly so.

"what is meaningful about a bunch of neural connections?"

Neural connections have no objective meaning. The materials of life have marvelously combined to form humans with consciousness. Out of consciousness we have evolved a system of pain values and happiness. I've now clearly explained to you what makes me happy and why.

The inverse of your question presents a problem for you. I will frame it in a question. If there were no god, would you fuck young boys, eat people, steal, or lie? Is a belief in a bronze age god really keeping you from doing those things?

It seems that acknowledging the lack of evidence for god, the supernatural, or objective morality encourages a more intellectually honest approach to meaning. It puts the responsibility for building a better existence squarely on your shoulders, where it absolutely belongs.

Clint Wells said...

"lastly, your response to the tearing down comment, that religious people tear down to, isn't really dealing with the question or criticism. i agree, religious people tear down also. so what?"

I dealt with the question perfectly by trying to show you that tearing down dogmatism IS leading people towards skepticism and rational criticism. Out of the bronze age and into the age of reason. It is leading people towards openly valuing physical evidence and reasoned logic rather than appeals to authority or ignorance.

That's what.

bruce said...

couple of responses:

1. yes, in a godless world i think all of those things would be the norm and not the exception, though i don't really have a category for what i would do in that situation

2. on the question of happiness, what you've just outlined, so far as i understand it, and please correct me if i'm wrong, is that each individual is his own judge and that beauty, pleasure, ethics all derive from his personal happiness with the following statement: if X makes me happy then it is a worthwhile pursuit. you then gave a take away, but only if it does NOT affect the communal happiness. did i restate that correctly? kind of a combination of Objectivism and Utilitarianism?

Clint Wells said...

Bruce - I am reaching the end of my patience with you. If you cannot understand my personal beliefs about morality at this point then you likely never will.

When asked if you would fuck children, eat people, steal, and lie in a godless world you had this to say:

"i don't really have a category for what i would do in that situation"

Wow, Bruce. WOW. I think we've now gotten a clear picture of the kind of moral vaccuum you dwell in. I sincerely hope for your sake, and for the sake of your neighbors and their children, that you remain enslaved to your delusions.