Sunday, July 29, 2012

That difficult Bible.

"And Moses just sits around, and
writes the Bible!"  Actually this is 
supposed to be John, but we need to
sneak a Keith Green quote in
here, finally. 
In a forum somewhere last week (I won't quote directly), someone reminded participants (all Christians) that while apologetic books are all well and good, we should not neglect to read our Bibles.  Even some pastors, he noted, have not read the Bible through.  The Bible is a pretty good book, he reminded us.  This post received dozens of "likes," and was followed by numerous affirming comments, including suggestions for which Study Bible to buy next, or which version to listen to on tape. 

But Mark Heard's old line comes to mind:

I'm too sacred for the sinners, and the saints wish I would leave.

Apparently I'm doomed to be disagreeable, whereever I am:

I have read the Bible, in more than one language. But honestly, it is hard for me now to read through the OT. Last time I made it to Jeremiah, and ran out of steam. All that wishing of gruesome death on peoples I had never met -- a few passages I could handle, but it seemed unrelenting. Even Isaiah, one of my favorites, was in the mid sections difficult. I understand why so many atheists claim they lost their faith by reading the Bible.  

The Bible is magnificent, mysterious, full of marvelous things, including prophecies of Jesus and teachings that have changed the world for the better. (But in some cases, also seem to have encouraged evil.) It is fantastic how all these different books come ino focus around Christ, even those written centuries before he was born. But let's not be glib. The Bible is not a "pretty good book:" it's a strange collection of books, some of them the greatest things ever written, some containing what look like terrible things. I for one don't claim to have figured this book out. Nor do I think that by itself, the Bible will produce faith in every kindly heart that reads it. (This, Richard Wurmbrand warned about.)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Oxford History of Islam (4th most popular review)

John Esposito, Oxford History of Islam

"Whitewashes History"

(***)  113 + / 48 -

This is a beautiful book with a lot of lovely pictures and illustrations, and a great deal of useful and interesting information. I appreciated learning more about sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The chapter on the relationship between Aristotelian philosophy and Arabic theology was interesting. I also learned a lot from the chapter on Islam and Christianity, which generally seemed fairly balanced. This rather hefty volume helped fill a large hole in my historical knowledge, and I am sure I will continue to find it a useful resource. (An Egyptian colleague, herself Muslim, actually borrowed it to prep for a talk she was asked to give on Islam!) 

I have two major complaints, however. First, I bought the book hoping to learn more about the history of Islam, the religion. While I appreciate the fact that the editor chose to tell us about art and law and economics too, it often seemed like the history of Islam, the religion, got drowned out in the somewhat accidental details of Islam, the civilization.

In particular, I came to the text with questions such as, "How did Islam spread? What motivated those who spread it? How did the teachings and example Mohammed, in particular, affect human history?" These seem like reasonable questions to ask of the "Oxford History of Islam." But there was almost nothing about Mohammed in the book. (Fortunately, I had just read Maxime Rodinson's Mohammed, which is a good supplement to that portion of the book.) While the authors gave a great deal of information around the edges of other great expansionist periods in Islamic history, some kind of scholarly myopia seemed to prevent them from getting to the heart of the matter.

I wanted to know, for example, if the frequent claim that Indonesia became Muslim peacefully were true. Bruce Lawrence, in his chapter on Islam in Southeast Asia, hardly addressed the question of how the islands became Muslim, except, for example, in the following subordinate clause of one sentence: "Although the actual Islamic conquest of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit took place in 1478 . . . "

That brings me to my second complaint. On page 352, there is a photo of a tomb, identified as that of Tamerlane. "His majestic blue-domed tomb epitomizes the splendor of Timurid architecture," the caption reads. When I read that, and leafed through the index for further references, I had to wonder: what kind of history of Islam is it that, in 750 pages, cannot find room for a single clear sentence about the greatest Muslim conquerer of all -- and less for his millions of victims? It is like writing a history of communism and only noting, in passing, that a fellow named Stalin inspired a new movement in socialist realist painting. (Granted, however, that the tyrants of yesteryear had much better taste in art.)
Similiarly, Lawrence seems to completely whitewash the thousand-year history of the Islamic assault on India, that Durant describes as "probably the bloodiest story in human history." Sultan Mahmud, the text merely notes, "not only pillaged and destroyed; he also built and rebuilt." (As, of course, did Stalin.)

It is said that history is written by the winners. The authors seem to want to prove that aphorism. Mohammed's own cruel career is glossed over a few pages. Tamerlane is memorialized with a pretty tomb, his victims ignored. Nehemia Levtizion seems to blame the Ethopians for putting up too good a fight, therefore bringing jihad down on themselves. (As opposed to other tribes that were simply swallowed.) Another writer calls the Medieval Europeans "xenophobic," and the European idea that Islam is violent is treated as a prejudice. Muslim armies had just conquered half of the Christian world, launched attacks against Rome and Constantinople, and into France. If half of your children had been kidnapped by a neighbor, would it be fair to call you "paranoid" if you locked your doors at night? (Or even in the day?) (See Jihad for more details.)

One author mentions an Islamic attrocity -- discreetly, so as not to embarrass anyone -- then marches on to the dogmatic but question-begging conclusion, "The contest is over political authority even when it is framed as a contest over religious truth." How, in a religion that does not distinguish between mosque and state, is one to tell the difference? And can we really generalize about what made Muslim conquerers tick in this way? From what sources?

Ira Lapidus is more frank, and suggests perhaps a bit more sympathy with the victims, in her description of the tyrannical Ottoman empire and its "divinely given mission to conquer the world." Again, I would have appreciated more details on exactly how the Ottomans formulated and explained their ideology, and how they related it to the Qu'ran and the career of Mohammed. But at least she does mention the "losers."

The book probably does deserve the five stars in some respects. It is, as I said, a physically-beautiful book, and an erudite work of scholarship.  But I am getting tired of this habit of scholars whitewashing inhumanity and painting a pretty picture on top. I felt like giving it one star, in protest. But a lot of good scholarship and artistry went into the text as well, and it would be unfair not to acknowledge that.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Blog Whoring?

Sometimes you hear a phrase once too often, and you suddenly realize there's nothing in it.
Back when I occasionally interacted with posters on Pharyngula, the radical atheist site run by PZ Myers, I would sometimes be accused of two contradictory crimes: (a) not backing up my claims with enough evidence, and (b) "blog-whoring," posting links to this site, where I had stashed quantities of evidence that did, in fact, back up the points I was making.  As a professional writer, I might have thought it was a concession to link to free sites, instead of saying, "Get yourself a copy of Jesus and the Religions of Man, and you'll see I cover this topic thoroughly in chapter ten." 

Anyway, it seems one is damned if one does (give evidence, which obviously can't be fully offered in a post on a hostile site), and equally damned if one doesn't.  That, in the end, is how PZ Myer's "solved the problem" of David Marshall showing up on his site.  He banned me for "blog whoring," at least long enough for me to ask what the point of going there in the first place had been. 

One site on the Freethought Blogs site I still sometimes visit, is that of the Uncredible Hallq.  He seems like a nice enough guy, low-maintanance, relatively speaking. 

A couple day ago Hallq posted a blog with the following title:

"What Christian blogs are worth interacting with?"

I answered by inviting Hallq's readers to come here, read some of the material on this site, and chat or challenge us, if they liked. 

The first comment after my post was kind, though it made me wish I'd stayed silent:

"I was actually going to recomend Mr Marshall here but assumed Chris knew about him, but now that he’s shown up I’ll second the recomendation, he’s always seemed like a good sport to me."

But the very next comment made an accusation that suddenly caused me to see the light:

Blog whoring again, DM?

And so I replied:

No, Otrame, I’m not “blog whoring,” I’m answering the OP by recommending a good (I think) discussion forum that meets the criteria mentioned above.

If I were to recommend my books, and they were on-subject, I wouldn’t see anything perverse, sinful or kinky about that, either. If you own an ice cream parlor, and someone asks, “Where can I get some good ice cream?”, and you really do think your ice cream is optimal, would saying so constitute “banana split whoring” in your eyes? (Not that I make any money from on-line activity, which is mostly a temptation.)

Beware of the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" mentality that you so often find among fanatics, like those who dominate Pharyngula. 

And if you disagree with me, and have a legitimate site to back up your point (this does require a certain level of trust, don't abuse it, and please give us reason to trust you by thoughtful comments in the first place) feel free to supplement your comments by linking to an appropriate site. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell (4th Most Unpopular Review)

We continue our ascent towards Amazon glory today, with my fourth most unpopular book review of all time.  We're almost on the home stretch!  I say "unpopular," not "least popular," by the way, because the books on this list tend to get a lot of positive AND negative votes.  (The rating is determined by multiplying the gross number of down votes by the ratio of down to up votes -- though I don't try to be too scientific, as you'll see when we close in on numero uno.  The most popular reviews, by contrast, are determined simply by aggregate total of positive votes.  This difference is because reviews don't get a LOT of negative votes unless they get some positive votes, in the Amazon system.)

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena

 "Amateur Hour" (** ; 41 + / 91 -)

At the core of this book (which meanders a lot), Dennett synthesizes the work of William James, Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and the early Rodney Stark into a multi-disciplinarian theory of religion. Dennett follows Boyer in supposing that religion derives from the co-option of several distinct mental faculties that evolved independently: mechanisms that enable us to sort memories, recognize "cheaters" in a transaction, act as moral (therefore trustworthy) members of society, share stories, and recognize what Dennett calls the "intentional stance." The "disposition to attribute agency to anything complicated that moves," as he describes this latter, is crucial, the "irritant around which the pearls of religion grow." Echoing Edward Tylor's theory of animism, Dennett argues that we "over-attribute" intentionality to natural objects. When a loved one dies, we deal with fear of decay and her ongoing life in our minds by ceremoniously removing the body and projecting our thoughts as a "spirit," a "virtual person created by the survivors' troubled mind-sets."

I see four major problems with Dennett's argument. First, he seems to know very little about religion. Second, he simply ignores most contrary data. Third, often his "new ideas" actually echo orthodox Christian insights, of which he appears ignorant. And fourth, he overlooks a key phenomena -- awareness of God in primitive cultures.

Dennett's knowledge of religion appears derivative and weak. He buys the long-discredited notion that the Medievals thought the world was flat. He finds Elaine Pagel's ill-informed "Gnostic Gospel"theories persuasive. (See my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, for why Pagels is wrong.) But his deepest error has to do with the usual  misunderstanding of faith and reason. He assumes that Christianity, in particular, recommends "blind faith," and spends much of the book lecturing believers to finally critique our faith rationally.

It is painful to see a philosopher so badly informed on this subject. Not once does he interact with a single Christian or Jewish philosopher, scientist, historian, or theologian. (Even though he has co-written a book with Alvin Plantinga on related topics.)  One would have hoped he would have at least read the previous pope's 'Fides et Ratio.' But that might not have helped. In a parallel apologia for atheism, Michael Shermer quoted John Paul's words on the complementary nature of faith and reason, took a poll which showed that a plurality of theists believe for rational reasons, yet still managed to buy the "blind faith" meme. (See my anthology of quotes by key Christian thinkers for the past two thousand years in an article around about here called "Faith and Reason.")

A related problem is that Dennett entirely neglects to consider empirical reasons for faith. Many people I have met claim to have experienced miracles. Millions credit their faith to supernatural events, even sophisticated believers like Augustine and Pascal. While he tries to be measured and careful in his criticism, Dennett disdains to even speak of this wealth of empirical data. How can one explain a phenomena that one disdains to even mention?

Thirdly, Dennett appears ignorant of how orthodox some of his points are. Dennett warns against "over-attributing intentionality" to artifacts - what Christians call "idolatry." He criticizes what Jesus called "vain repetition" in religion. He thinks his most "shocking" conclusion is that it is unwise to trust poorly credentialed preachers too strongly! Yet Jesus warned against "wolves in sheep's clothing" -- a phrase that makes use of (I count) five different key "discoveries" Dennett mentions about human memory, thus making Dennett's most important point 2000 years before the "Father of Brights" thought them up, and far more memorably.

Dennett spills rivers of ink on "memetics." Memes work "unobtrusively, without disturbing their hosts any more than is absolutely necessary." They may "conceal their true nature from their hosts." They "acquire tricks" "exploit" romance, "proliferate," and "benefit" from adaptation. Wicked religious memes teach "submission" (Islam) and love of "the Word" (Christians) over life. It almost sounds as if Dr. Dennett has invented a new theory of demon possession!

The root fallacy here lies in confusing subject and object. Dennett himself warns that our "built-in love for the intentional stance" encourages us to see "invisible agents" as "secret puppeteers behind the perplexing phenomena." Admittedly, it is often  hard to understand why people fall for bizarre beliefs! But blaming the ideas themselves, rather than the people who buy and sell them, is to confuse subject and object.  People exploit, spread ideas, and benefit when those ideas are accepted. The ideas themselves are deaf to all desires and temptations, even the temptation to publish silly arguments. 

If Dennett finds agency where it does not exist, he also overlooks it where it may. Assuming the view, common since Hume, that people were originally polytheistic, he writes of "the historical process by which polytheisms turned into monotheism," and "dramatic deformation" between ancient and modern ideas of God.

Here, Dennett has not even read his own sources carefully enough. Emile Durkheim, it is true, argued that religious beliefs have "varied infinitely," and none of them, therefore, "expresses (truth) adequately." (Elementary Forms, 420) But earlier in the same work, Durkheim noted that among Australian tribes (which he took as the testing ground for theories of primitive religion), concepts of the Supreme God "are fundamentally the same everywhere." The Supreme God was always "eternal," "a sort of creator," "father of men," "made animals and trees," "benefactor," "communicates," "punishes," "judge after death," "they feel his presence everywhere." Stark and Armstrong also touch on this subject, to name only Dennett's own sources. (See the chapter "The Non-History of God" in my Jesus and the Religions of Man, for the longer story.)

It is untenable now to simply assume the triumph of secular thought. The oft-prophecied reign of irreligious man has been delayed so long that theorists like Boyer throw up their hands and declare faith congenital. Philosophical theists have staged a comeback. Astronomers have learned (often to their horror) that the universe had a beginning, after all. Anthropic coincidences have led some to call for a repeal of the Copernican Principle. The origin of life remains shrouded in mystery. An historian of the stature of N. T. Wright has written a book like The Resurrection of the Son of God. Great 20th Century social experiments conducted in the names of Hegel, Feurbach, Marx, Engels, and Tylor led to horror.

A cynic might suppose that this is a good moment to try bluffing. But Dennett's ignorance seems sincere. Next time, professor, please do your homework, and give us an argument, rather than a question-begging free-association intellectual ramble.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

David in the Lion's Den

Thursday morning, I was called into the conference room at the Oxford Centre for Missions Studies, to take my Viva Voce, "Live Voice," the traditional oral defense of a doctoral thesis in the British system.  Three men were waiting for me inside, none, as it happens, Chinese: Tom Harvey, a Duke-educated theologian and Dean of OCMS, who has studied Chinese thought for many years, and acted as Internal Examiner; Gavin D'Costa, Bristol University professor and a leading Catholic authority on "theology of religions," (and advisor to the Pontifical Council for Other Faiths), acting as External Examiner; and David Singh, the Chair, a specialist in Indian Islam.  (The last name "Singh," common among Sikhs in India, is Sanskrit for "lion.")

Wrecklessly passing over my cute panda tie, I had put on a yellow tie with dragons, a power tie if ever there were one.  So I was distressed to see D'Costa wearing a bright pink tie, that outshone mine by half an order of magnitude. 

And here Daniel Dennett would number us both among the "dims." 

Neither examiner asked any of the questions I prepared for, of course.  One cannot predict what will occur to a scholar who has been developing his thoughts on a given subject for decades. One of them told me at the beginning of the exam to "Relax and enjoy the conversation," advise perhaps calculated to make an examinee feel more nervous.  Anyway, I did "flub" some of the questions.  My explanation for why I had not critiqued the inclusivist model of religions as thoroughly as the other two traditional models, seemed weak even to me.  When asked the opposite of teleological, I invented a word, which is probably not a good strategy even for someone with jet lag.  (Fortunately adding a verbal question mark at the end of my lame answer.)  Nor, it turns out, had I included much of an explanation for the key Taoist concept of wuwei in the thesis ("without striving," "going with the flow"), like the detailed historical studies of other key words I'd developed from ancient Chinese sources. 

But overall, they seemed to like my thesis, and found some of my answers coherent enough.  After an hour and a half, they asked me to leave.  I paced back and forth for a while, like a father outside the maternity room -- then they delivered.  A few amendments were needed (more on wuwei, more on inclusivism, more on John Farquhar's ideas relate to my own, etc) -- congratulations, Dr. Marshall, and handshakes all around. 

So what should I say? 

"I came, I spoke, I conquered?"

Or perhaps:

"This too is vanity and striving after wind . . . As he had come naked from his mother's womb, so will he return as he came . . . exactly as a man is born, thus will he die . So, what advantage to him who toils for the wind?  . . . Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and to enjoy oneself in all one's labor in which he toils under the sun . . . (God) has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor: this is the gift of God.  For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart." 

Praise God.  A little pile of straw it may be, but this long-toiled over stack has finally (aside from a few tweaks, and academic bureaucracy) been gathered into the barn.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sickness unto death.

Yesterday off Cornmarket in Oxford, I saw a copy of Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death on the display window of a bookstore -- in Japanese.  Apparently this book is a theme in some anime.  As if the Japanese weren't depressed enough already.  Is it true that every culture flagillates itself with the sins it is least likely to commit?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Into the Arena.

I'm flying to London tomorrow for my Viva, held Thursday at Oxford Centre for Missions Studies. This is the "oral exam" part of my doctoral work. I ignored advice to do something "managable" in my thesis, threw caution to the wind, and attempted to construct a "map" of world religions from an orthodox, biblical perspective, internally consistent and of sweeping explanatory power. The dissertation focuses on the work of one of the leaders of the Democracy Movement back in 1989, a young philosopher named Yuan Zhiming, who later became a Christian and tried to interpret Chinese tradition from the perspective of the Gospel -- much as some early Christians did with schools of Greco-Roman thought. Along the way, I carefully examine two great sermons (by Jesus, on the Mount, and by Paul, on Mars Hill) to develop a model of religions called Fulfillment Theology.  (Though I'm only allowed to use one "l" in the first word, this being a British thesis).  Then I retell the story of Chinese Christianity from this (to me very exciting) perspective, touching on such great figures as Jing Jing, the Nestorian priest, Mateo Ricci and lesser-known colleagues, and some of the most thoughtful Christians in China, Western and Chinese, during the 19th and 20th Century.  Since people who think this way have usually focused on the theism of the ancient Chinese classics, and what classical sages like Confucius and Lao Zi said about a Savior, this also allowed me to study the Chinese classics.  Getting back to Chinese culture, and its relationship to Christianity, felt like being a kid in a candy store. 

The External Examiner is an eminent Catholic theologian of religions, who is also one of my dialogue partners in the thesis.  It should be an exciting day. 

This is the most ambitious work I have attempted, to date: I feel (to speak subjectively, not to compare myself) much as Kepler must have felt, when he discovered how planets orbit the sun.  Great pieces of an enormous puzzle seem to have come together over the past five (really thirty) years.  I also feel a little like Kepler's mother must have, just before she was hauled into court on a charge of witchcraft.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Christianity to disappear! Gnu Millennia to follow!

Tom Flynn, at the Council for Secular Humanism, and editor of the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, has just posted a cheerful report about the state of religion in America -- cheerful, that is, if you're a secular humanist, and you buy his arguments.

I fall into neither category, but the dual negation makes me feel upbeat, all over again.  Let's take a look: 

How many of us are there? Writing in FREE INQUIRY In 1993, the philosopher and religion researcher William B. Williamson estimated the total population belonging to atheist or humanist organizations or subscribing to “movement” publications at 178,000.  As minorities go, that’s vanishingly small. And if you listen to the religious Right, it’s about what you’d expect: a marginal fringe of village-atheist misfits whose concerns are hopelessly remote from the American mainstream.

Actually, from what you hear from a lot of Christians, the anti-God faction has already taken over Academia, the courts, Hollywood, and Washington.  So we conservative Christians have both our "glass half empty" and our "glass half full" voices, plus a few misfits like myself, who suffer mood swings.     

But maybe counting membership cards and subscriptions isn’t the best way to gauge the size of our movement. If we take the whole spectrum of nonbelievers—from hard-bitten atheists to those self-described “religious humanists” who nonetheless hold no transcendental beliefs—what do the numbers show?

It depends on when you look. Sixty or seventy years ago, just 2 percent of Americans would confide to pollsters that they had no religious preference. By 1990, that figure had risen to about 8 percent.

Does anyone suppose that only 2% of Americans really were irreligious in the 1940s?  Just yesterday morning, I read this autobiographical comment from a young Isobel Kuhn, who was waiting tables in Chicago to work her way through Bible school in the 1920:

(The new work) was not too strenuous, however, for it was work among Christians -- no more heathen Americans shouting at me.

Kuhn's accounts of Christian visitation likewise make it clear that a lot of people, if not the majority, were extremely irreligious.  (As does Jonathan Goforth's account of the same activity, a few decades earlier.) 

Likely the expression of a "religious preference" was more a tribal than spiritual comment.  "I'm not a Jew, I'm not a Catholic -- I must be a Baptist, what else?" 

And why should we start just 70 years ago, 200 years after the so-called Enlightenment began?  What were the forces of secularization doing all those centuries, enjoying a siesta?  Heck, Flynn's beginning date was 30 years after an atheist cult took over the largest country in the world!  Best I recall, that cult made considerable headway in America during our Great Depression, and had been causing rumblings for decades across Europe and Asia.  (It had conquered much of China, already.)  Honestly, the historical memory of many skeptics seems brief as a firefly!

As Rodney Stark shows in "Secularization, RIP" (more on this, below), irreligious attitudes have been as much the norm as the exception since the Middle Ages, at least.  Europe was seldom all that church-going a society.  America has often been more secularized than it is today: the number of those with church affiliations in early America was, Stark claims, much lower than it is today.

Today the number claiming no religious preference (nonreligionists, popularly referred to as the “nones”) stands at 16 percent. Let’s see: as I write there are about 313,000,000 Americans. The Catholic church counts babies and children, so we should too, just to keep the comparisons even. So that’s roughly 50,080,000 American men, women, and children who live outside of conventional religion.

This is supposed to be some sort of revolution?  Stark says only 17%  of Americans belonged to a church in 1776.  It is almost certain that the number of those who have no serious religious faith is a lot higher than 16% now, and always has been.  But most New Atheists, being young pups, lack the historical consciousness that would trigger their "baloney alert" sirens when their gurus make naval-gazing claims like this.  They haven't been around long, and haven't read enough to smell a rat when people talk glibly of past "Ages of Faith."  Christians sometimes make the same mistake, by romanticizing the past.  (Forgetting such evils as the intense racism of the same Southern culture that produced all those great Gospel songs you get just a small taste of in Brother, Where Are Thou.)  We are often told how abruptly Brits have left the faith in the past few decades -- forgetting that most of a century ago, C. S. Lewis already asserted that barely one in ten Brits were Christian. (As, I think, Chesterton did before him.) 

It was no anomaly that in 1738, less than 5% of the population of Oxfordshire even bothered to attend church on feast days: disinterest had long been the norm across Europe.  (Stark and Finke, 2000: 63-68)  The larger trend in America has been a fairly steady INCREASE in piety and church attendance. 

For belief in God, the great granddaddy of all data sources is the Gallup Poll. We’ve all seen the figures endlessly repeated in the media: “Surveys show more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, a figure that’s held steady since the 1940s.” Well, not exactly. The Gallup Organization asked Americans “Do you believe in God?” on at least six occasions between November 1944 and August 1967. In 1976, Gallup changed the question, asking not whether respondents believed in God but whether they believed in “God or a universal spirit.” Broadening the question in this way perhaps served to keep the number of reported believers stable, even though their notions of God had grown more diverse. Interestingly, in May 2011 Gallup tested the old “Do you believe in God?” question for the first time in forty-four years. The last time Gallup posed that question, in August 1967, 98 percent of respondents reported believing in God. In May 2011, only 92 percent said the same. Hmm—no wonder they changed the question.

This sounds a little paranoid, as if  Flynn is assuming that Gallup does its work chiefly to cover the exposed limbs of ragged and retreating country preachers.  The real reason Gallup rephrased the question should be obvious: New Age thinking, Hinduism, or Native American terminology, had become popular in the 1960s and 70s, and with it, "broader" definitions of God.

The Gallup survey also shows that faith in God rose and declined (as Stark and Finke predict, against Secularization Theory), having been as "low" as 94% in 1947 -- only two points higher than the present.   
Given that 5% of Americans are now of Asian origin, one might (a priori) expect theism to drop a couple points due to the increase in people from the least-Christian part of the planet alone, even without the recent Gnu fad.  But no doubt the Gnu fad has had some impact, as fads generally do.  (As, at the same time, many Asian immigrants have also converted to Christianity.)  Why assume the trend will continue?  Both European and American history suggest that religious commitment waxes and wanes.   (See the graph to right, for one possible causal mechanism: children of atheists tend to defect more often than those raised in any religion.)

Unbelief among Scientists

The media have an insatiable appetite for news about religious belief and unbelief among scientists. This seemingly arcane statistic strikes a chord because fundamentalists hope to scare people away from Darwin by showing that atheism is so prevalent among scientists—while secular humanists hope to show what a smart option unbelief must be by showing that atheism is so prevalent among scientists.

The measurement of belief and unbelief among scientists began with pioneer sociologist James H. Leuba (1868–1946). He grew up in Switzerland, where his experience of the stern Calvinism in power there led him to atheism—and to lifelong curiosity about religion. He moved to the United States as a graduate student and stayed for life. From 1898 to 1933, Leuba was a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College.

In a famous 1916 study, Leuba surveyed the religious opinions of one thousand biologists, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists. He attracted enormous attention with the then-scandalous finding that only about 40 percent of American scientists believed in God or an afterlife. Leuba repeated the survey in 1933, obtaining similar results.

In April of 1997, University of Georgia science historian Edward J. Larson and Washington Times reporter Larry Witham announced in a letter to Nature that they had replicated Leuba’s 1916 and 1933 studies. Restricting themselves to a sample of one thousand scientists in the same narrow selection of specialties Leuba had chosen, Larson and Witham also administered exactly the same now-archaic questionnaire in order to maximize intercomparability between Leuba’s data and their own.

What did they find? As in 1916 and 1933, about 40 percent of responding scientists believed in God or an afterlife . . .

One year later, Larson and Witham were back, advising Nature that they had replicated one of Leuba’s other studies—a survey of elite American scientists . . .

In 1914, Leuba found that 27.7 percent of elite scientists had a personal belief in God. By 1933, that figure had fallen to just 15 percent. For Larson and Witham in 1998, only 7 percent of top scientists had a personal belief in God. By the way, this statistic is the source for that endless repeated sound-bite claim that only 7 percent of top scientists believe in God . . .

I mention such findings in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, and suggest various explanations.  The least likely, it seems to me, is that "elite scientists" are clearer-thinking, and more familiar with the evidence for and against God than anyone else.  For one thing, in some societies higher education levels corresponds dramatically with an increase in Christian commitment.  Perhaps "elites" just like to be different from the common herd.  Probably there are "people movements" among some elites pulling them towards secular humanism - a social, not intellectual, phenomena.  In any case, as one biologist pointed out to me, to become an elite scientist or social scientist requires an enormous investment of time in one's speciality.  Someone who invests 80 hours a week in chemistry experiements and in reading the literature may not have time to go to church, still less to rationally and fairly investigate the evidence for Christianity.  (I submit Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion as Exhibit A to demonstrate the callowness of resultant diatribes by "elite scientists" -- if one can count Dawkins as such.)

Thus we get graphs like this, from Flynn:
Figure 2
Figure 2. Composition of 16 percent of Americans, an all-time high, who declared themselves unnaffiliated with any religion (Pew-Bliss Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics, 2004). Atheists, agnostics, and seculars combined outnumbered believers (10.7% – 5.3%).

Nevermind the fact that "all time" here carries the special meaning of, "since 1940."  That is, after all, when time began, is it not?  And never mind the fact that the number is absurdly low, anyway. 

Some Dubious Numbers

The demography of religion has given rise to its share of questionable data. September 2006 saw the release of a provocative but badly flawed study from Baylor University’s Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.19 To give you an idea what to expect, know that Baylor is the world’s largest Baptist university; that the study was partly funded by the highly pro-religious John Templeton Foundation20; and that one of its directors was Rodney Stark, famous for his erroneous proclamation of the death of secularization. Baylor researchers took joy in reporting that one in three Americans was a born-again evangelical, and that almost 92 percent of its respondents reported belief in God.

Wait -- isn't that the same figure Flynn himself reported, earlier in this article?  Why was that figure correct when reported approvingly from Gallup, but "badly flawed" when reported disapprovingly from Baylor?  Is it not possible they both got the number approximately correct? 

And what does Flynn mean by saying Stark is "famous for his erroneous proclamation of the death of secularism?"  For anyone who knows much about religious scholarship, Stark is really famous for being one of the most intellectually productive and insightful sociologists of religion in the world -- which is why even smart Gnus, like Daniel Dennett, site him to buttress their arguments.  The radical sociologists Flynn sets against Stark (see below) are mostly small potatoes by comparison, which is why Flynn's dismissive comment sounds like one of those boomerang snears.  Secondly, it sounds as if Flynn is referring to Stark's article in The Sociology of Religion, 1999, 'Secularization, RIP.'  To be clear, what Stark describes there is the death of Secularization Theory, not an end to secularists, or the precipitous decline of unbelief, nor is he denying ups and downs in religious belief.   

Let’s analyze the second claim first. That 92 percent figure turns out to be a composite, combining four groups holding distinctively different conceptions of God (see figure 3):
  • Thirty-one percent believed in an authoritarian god who is engaged in world affairs and angry at humanity’s sins.
  • Twenty-three percent believed in a benevolent god who is less likely to judge but has nonetheless given us absolute standards of right and wrong.
  • Sixteen percent believed in a critical god who monitors world affairs with a judging eye but never intervenes—no miracles, no thunderbolts of judgment.
  • Twenty-four percent believed in a distant god, essentially the aloof god of deism.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Composition of 92 percent of believers in God reported by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion in 2006. The suspect study also found one in three Americans was a born-again evangelical.

The Baylor study should have made news for finding that only a third of Americans hold the picture of God that fundamentalist evangelical Christians would consider “correct.”

This argument seems remarkably silly. 

What is God like, to orthodox Christians?  Is he distant?  Sure, sometimes -- even Jesus reported such an experience.  Is he critical?  Often -- even Jesus' disciples came in for quite a bit of tongue-lashing.  Is he benevolent?  We see that clearly in the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and sometimes in our own lives.  Is he the principle authority in our lives?  That's what the word "Lord," one of the most common names of God in the Bible, means. 

So God is all of these things at once, in the theology of the religion Flynn imagines himself to be attacking, but really shows little sign of comprehending, here. 

It is rather simple-minded to "quadfurcate" these four aspects of God's character, then to identify one as orthodox ("fundamentalist") doctrine, and discount people who mark the "wrong" answers as therefore unorthodox.  Flynn should read the parable of the blind men and the elephant: he is one of those blind men.   

Writing in FREE INQUIRY, a prominent religion scholar called the Baylor study “deficient in uncountable ways” and “all but useless.” As evidence, consider this astonishing factoid: the study found that 86.5 percent of evangelical Protestants have “no doubt that God exists,” which would imply that 13.5 percent of evangelical Protestants do have doubt that God exists. Make of that what you will.

What I would make of it, again, is that people who read Free Inquiry are often deficient in common sense. 

I sometimes doubt God's existence, as apparently did Mother Teresa.  Does that make us agnostics?  Hardly.  I am a committed Christian, who would be happy to debate the existence of God with Richard Dawkins or any other leading atheist, and who has invested his life (in some sense) in the work of the Gospel.  But reality can be an ambiguous thing, providing fodder for thoughtful people of all views to feel doubts, from time to time, especially those of us of a "glass half full today, half empty tomorrow" temperament.  What amaze me are people who never doubt, but sometimes I envy them, too. 

And who knew that "prominent religious scholars" issued their careful, ground-breaking arguments in Free Inquiry magazine? Flynn is referring to R. Joseph Hoffman, who was also an editor of Free Inquiry and a legitimate (if somewhat fringy) scholar, but certainly none so prominent as Stark. 

Though numerous other studies have been unanimous in documenting sharp growth in both the unaffiliated population and the overtly nonreligious population since the 1990s, disagreeing only as to exact percentages, the 2008 Baylor study would seek to prove that the idea that the nonreligious population is increasing was all a silly mistake. For example, it maintained that America’s atheist population has remained essentially unchanged at about 4 percent from 1944 through 2007.

Independent scholar Gregory S. Paul analyzed the 2008 study in a lengthy report released early in 2009 by the Council for Secular Humanism.  Paul described numerous alleged errors and instances of bias in the Baylor group’s interpretation of its data.

Paul is no stranger to bias and errors.  His own work, I have found riddled with both; Stark was quite dismissive of Paul, when I sent him a rebuttal I wrote to Paul's earlier work, which I found terribly sloppy.  But that would be the subject for another day.   

Secularization: Are Reports of Its Death Exaggerated?

This brings us to one of the most controversial principles in religious demographics: the so-called secularization hypothesis. This is the theory, originally formalized by the nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber, that religion should diminish in influence as education, prosperity, and public understanding of science spread. Since the 1970s, it has been fashionable for mainstream demographers to pronounce the secularization hypothesis a failure, at least as regards the United States. The aforementioned Rodney Stark did so with gusto in a 1999 paper titled “Secularization, R.I.P.,” which was adapted into a chapter of his 2000 book Acts of Faith coauthored with Roger Finke. I criticized “death-of-secularization theory” in a retrospective 2007 FREE INQUIRY op-ed, noting that since 2000, both internationally and even across the United States, signs are growing that the process of secularization is proceeding after all. I noted the rapid rise in nonreligionist Americans, flattening growth trends among evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches across the United States, and signs that America’s fast-growing Hispanic population is beginning to surrender to the “secularizing tug of American life.”

Independent scholars Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman have examined the state of secularization today in depth. Paul is the author of two FREE INQUIRY cover stories, the mammoth entry on “Demography of Unbelief” in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, and the previously mentioned critique of the 2008 Baylor religion study. Zuckerman, now at Pitzer College, is author of Society without God (2008), which profiles life in highly secularized Norway and Scandinavia, and Faith No More, a collection of interviews with largely American apostates.

I seem to have misplaced my rebuttal of Paul and (perhaps) Zuckerman.  If I find it, or find time to reproduce it, I may post it here in the future: these gentleman are cited quite often, and I think many of their arguments are very simplistic. 

Among their findings: contrary to what you might have heard, the world religions are not enjoying conspicuous growth spurts (with one exception). Christians made up about a third of the global population in 1900, and they still do today. Hindus are static at one-seventh despite strong population growth in India. Buddhism shrunk by a quarter in the twentieth century and is predicted to shrink by about as much in the next fifty years. Only Islam has gained ground, moving from one-eighth to one-fifth of the global population in the twentieth century. By 2050, it is projected that one human in four will be a Muslim. But conversion has little to do with it; Islam is growing solely because of very high birthrates across the Muslim world.

Notice what is missing in this analysis -- an enormous and important worldwide revolution. 

Since 1900, the percentage of the world that was "Western" -- broadly, white -- has plummetted dramatically.  This is where almost all the world's Christians were in 1900.  Given the fact that "Christian" countries have plunged off a cliff, demographically, and that secularization is supposedly occuring in most of those countries (not to mention an atheist empire swallowing many of them) one would expect the number of Christians in the world to plunge even faster.  One would expect, maybe, 10% of the world to espouse a marginal Christianity, by this time.   

This has not happened.  The percentage of self-declared Christians has remained fairly steady.  The percentage of real Christians has probably risen. 

Why is that?  Simple: the Gospel has spread to the rest of the world in a dramatic fashion.  Millions of Christians in subSaharan Africa have become hundreds of millions, many of them fervent.  Christo-pagans in South America have become Bible-reading believers.  Almost a hundred million Chinese have converted to Christianity, along with tens of millions in India, Indonesia, and Korea.  Brand-new churches have started from nothing in countries like Nepal and Mongolia, while movements to Christ have even begun in Iran, Egypt, and Algeria. 

So even while the percentage of Christians has remained steady, due to slower biological growth (a factor Flynn finds worth emphasizing, when it comes to Islam!), Christianity has, in fact, enjoyed tremendous growth, at the very same time.  Also, more of these new Christians seem to be serious about their faith than mere genetic church attendance.  Plus, we can rejoice that the communist attempt to wipe out religion, the largest anti-religious movement in history (which our present Gnus try hard to forget about) largely failed, and the gates of the Gulag were flung half-open. 

Viewed even from the perspective of the fastest-growing sects, the explosion of secularity is still unprecedented, dwarfing the Mormons’ climb to twelve million during the century and even the growth of Pentecostalist Protestantism from nearly nothing to half a billion.

I don't begrudge Mr. Flynn his momentary thrill, and there certainly are many (often young) converts to the New Atheism.  But in truth, the closest parallel to the most spectacular rise of atheism -- which held one third of the world under its political sway, just a few years ago, though Flynn seems to have forgotten -- was early Islamic jihad.  The causes of success in both cases was the same: violence and terror.  A few decades ago, more than a billion people worldwide would almost certainly have called themselves atheists.  The number has shrunk, since, and seems to shrink soon after young people in remaining communist countries leave college. 

Moreover, secularity has made its spectacular gains almost entirely through the mechanism of adult choice.

Nonsense.  Most atheists in the world today are in China.  Most young Chinese college students call themselves atheists.  About half (based on my own limited survey) seem to shed this ephemeral self-identity after they graduate. 

No faith or sect has grown as rapidly by conversion alone. Doubters like us seem to be piling on the numbers as millions of men and women worldwide examine and reject the religions of their childhoods. Paul and Zuckerman call it “the first emergence of mass apostasy in history. No major religion is expanding its share of the global population by conversion in any circumstances. . . . Disbelief in the supernatural alone is able to achieve extraordinary rates of growth by voluntary conversion.”  This conclusion would be echoed by the previously discussed ARIS 2008.

Flynn appears to be a bit intoxicated with triumphalism.  Again, look carefully at the graph of religious retention rates, above.  I hope for the best on both sides of the generational gap, but atheists have not been very effective in transmitting their creed to their children.  Maybe this is one reason why secularism seems to come and go in waves, of which the Enlightenment can perhaps be seen as one. 

Why Is America So Different?

Even so, the phenomenon called American exceptionalism must be accounted for. Though religiosity is not ballooning in American life as widely supposed, public piety is nonetheless far more widespread in America than in Europe, Canada, or Australia. In fact, the United States is the only first-world country that displays high levels of religiosity seen otherwise only in third-world countries.

This is untrue, as well.  South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are, by any reasonable measure, "first world countries."  Exuberant religious belief thrives in all three places: in Singapore, even Anglican churches are evangelical. 

Why might this be? The well-known demographers Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart offered a hypothesis with distinctly political overtones. In their landmark 2004 book Sacred and Secular34 they hypothesized that first-world countries other than the United States differ from American society in having such attributes as stronger handgun control, a rehabilitative approach to incarceration, vigorous sex education, and until quite recently, greater leisure time and a much stronger social safety net. Largely protected against misfortunes that might upend a comfortable middle-class life, citizens of first-world countries other than the United States may well have felt that they could afford to dispense with the dubious protections that religion provides.

Or to put it in traditional Christian terms, as in communist countries, people who think government is God, often forsake the real God. 

But this handgun stuff seems a bit of a red herring.  Handguns are not at all widely available in Singapore or Taiwan.  Anyway, does anyone really think churches are full in America because guns are for sale in Big 5?  This looks like an almost superstitious form of liberal thinking.    

As to whether life is really more secure in a Western Europe that has experienced two (or three, depending how you count) world wars in the past century, and now runs the risk of financial ruin and demographic implosion, than in, say, pre-Obama North Dakota, is another issue.  The unadorned answer, I think, would have to be "No." 

In contrast, American life is significantly more uncertain, particularly (but far from solely) as regards the risk of bankruptcy in the event of catastrophic illness whose costs exceed an individual’s or family’s insurance coverage, coupled with the fact that once an American becomes poor, the resources available for relief are far more limited than in other first-world countries. Agreeing with Norris and Inglehart, Paul and Zuckerman declared it unsurprising that so many Americans “look to friendly forces from the beyond to protect them from the pitfalls of a risky American life, and if that fails, to compensate with a blissful eternal existence.”

All I can say to that is -- if Greeks and Spanish aren't praying right now, they're making foolish use of their time.  It may be that they have vainly trusted in their governments.  In fact, Stark's theory predicts that government monopoly of religion tends to suppress overall participation in religious services, so Flynn may be onto something, by accident. 

Again, brief consideration of history strikes one with how vacuous Flynn's analysis (and probably politics) are, and how far superior Stark's market explanations seem to be, whatever their flaws. (Which I do recognize.)  Is Flynn really maintaining that Americans go to church more because life has been so much more dangerous in America than in Europe over the past century or so?  Does Flynn remember Stalin?  MAD?  Either of the world wars fought on European soil?  None of this can be compared to the failure of Republican administrations to adopt Hillarycare when it comes to (literally)  scaring the hell out of people? 

What planet does this fellow live on?  And we haven't even mentioned the Autobahn, or English soccer.   

Whatever your own political orientation may be, the data genuinely seem to show that if, as a people, Americans took better care of each other, they might feel less need for a caregiver in the clouds—and presumably become more like their counterparts elsewhere in the first world.

Actually, as Arthur Brooks shows in Who Really Cares, Americans DO take better care of one another than Europeans do.  We (especially believers) tend to give four to eleven times as much in personal charity than Europeans.  Unfortunately, we have come to rely on government to take over a lot of the giving in recent years, producing mountainous debt, dependency, entitlement mentalities, and that bureaucratic nightmare, Obamacare, to the grave harm of the nation.

It also suggests that if Norris and Inglehart’s hypothesis is correct, the rest of the first world may be due for a tragic resurgence of popular piety. In the wake of the global financial crisis, other first-world nations are adopting austerity programs that fray social safety nets—perhaps reintroducing levels of risk to life in Europe, Canada, and Australia like those previously common only in the United States. In that event, citizens of formerly highly secularized first-world nations may begin to display a heightened demand for “invisible means of support.”

Again, this seems a very simplistic notion, evincing gross historical amnesia.  But Stark also predicts an upsurge in European piety, as churches are disestablished and factionalize.  And I agree that it behooves Europeans to fall on their knees before God in the present crisis.  Perhaps they should begin by repenting of the wreckless and deeply immoral ways in which they (along with us Americans) have spent the wealth of our children on ourselves, in effect selling our own kids into slavery to bond-holders in countries like China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. 

Religion Behind Bars: The Great Cover-up?

I’ve saved the best digression for last. I am often asked what numbers show about the prison population. If believers are correct that morality is impossible without religion, then our prisons and jails should be overflowing with atheists.

Which believers say that morality is "impossible without religion?"  This is not the normative Christian view, which claims that God has planted moral truth on all our hearts.  (Though the Gospel has been the heart of human reform down through the centuries -- including in the prisons, by the way.) 

First impressions would suggest the opposite—namely, that jails and prisons are awash in zealous believers at a rate far outstripping the general population—in which case religion’s boast as a guarantor of morality might seem questionable. But what do the numbers tell us? Not much, it turns out, because hard numbers are amazingly hard to come by. I suspect this is because from the believers’ point of view, the numbers are really, really bad.

Who records this alleged "first impression" that "jails and prisons are awash in zealous believers?"  Is Flynn talking about his own experience in prisons?  Before we launch into speculation, we need a few solid facts to base it on.   
In his 1895 book, The Criminal, pioneer psychologist Havelock Ellis reported that “It seems extremely rare to find intelligently irreligious men in prison.” Writing in 1928, criminologists Max D. Schlapp and Edward E. Smith said that only one-tenth of 1 percent of convicts had had no religious training. At around the same time, University of Pittsburgh psychologist W.T. Root found that less than one-third of 1 percent of those executed at Sing Sing Prison were nonreligious. A study by the researchers Steiner and Swancara found almost no agnostics among a multistate sample of prisoners. In 1936, three Franciscan priests who were also prison chaplains released a book titled Crime and Religion. They noted sadly that “Convicts as a class seem to be the most religious people in the country. . . . Therefore, what use religion?”

These are our solid facts? 

Anyone who has a nose, should smell a whole colony of rats, here.  999 out of 1000 convicts had religious training in 1928?  What is that supposed to mean?  Stalin (my fingers slipped, and almost typed Satan, which would have worked, too) had plenty of religious training.  He then became a doctrinaire, murderous atheist, who killed far more innocent people by himself (well, with help from other doctrinaire, murderous atheists) than all murderers of all creeds in the United States have ever killed. 

What Flynn offers here are not statitics, they are pious and palpably absurd urban myths.  What is most obvious about criminals, is that they tend to lack family training, tend to be illiterate, tend to be intellectually untrained.  Anyone who reads that "999 out of 1000 criminals received religious training" "stat" and does not laugh out loud, should be flipping hamburgers at McDonalds, with careful guidance as to how many hamburgers to flip, and how many squirts of ketsup and mustard to put on each bun. 

The most recent work in this area is apparently a body of surveys mailed to prisoners in 1961 by ex-priest and bombastic radio commentator Emmett McLoughlin. McLoughlin found that Roman Catholics were drastically overrepresented in the prison population . . . and unbelievers were drastically underrepresented. It’s all summed up—along with the best summary of prior religion-in-prison studies in print, from which the previous items in the series were drawn—in McLoughlin’s cranky 1962 book Crime and Immorality in the Catholic Church.

Well that certainly sounds convincing.  I, of course, readily believe any survey sent to illiterate, often mentally- deficient murderers and thieves, chosen on Heaven knows what basis, asked Heaven knows what questions, responding by carrier pidgeon no doubt to a "bombastic crank" and defrocked Catholic priest, then sifted carefully by Tom Flynn, the Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism.  We Christians, after all, are known for our credulity. 

And there the data ends.

Ends?  Where did it start? 

After McLoughlin’s widely publicized report, wardens apparently added direct-mail surveys to the list of things routinely screened out of prisoners’ incoming mail. In the half-century since, no prison I know of has permitted researchers to catalogue inmates’ religious affiliations. No such data has been kept by any department of corrections—or if kept, no such data has been released.

In the so-called freest country in the world, there’s been a fifty-year embargo on information about the religious status of prisoners—and it’s worked. Perhaps officials know that the pattern hasn’t changed, and that—even allowing for the pressures for inmates to affect religious conversions in order to obtain privileges and seek parole—the overwhelming overrepresentation of religious believers among the prison population would stingingly disprove the notion that belief fosters morality.

Yeah, prison wardens, like the Gallup Organization, are all part of the Baptist Conspiracy, General Conference, to hide the fact that rapists and arsonists are a bunch passionate Bible-thumpers, each and every one a product of 12 years of Sunday School.  (Even if one of the favorite things they like to burn, is churches -- no doubt they learned the concept and techniques of hell-fire in church!)  Never mind studies conducted by John DiIulio, professor of political science at Princeton, which seem to indicate the opposite:

The evidence is growing that the only people who are now doing something to make inner-city blacks part of 'one nation, indivisible' are those who seek 'one nation, under God, indivisible.' . . . the most important missing endnote to America in Black and White is a reference to the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Why is that?  Because church-going cuts crime and other risks dramatically.  This from a social scientist who has actually spent time in the neighborhoods he's talking about, and studies how real people live their lives.   

Wonderful social science methodology, Mr. Flynn.  You have me convinced: Chesterton was right.  People who refuse to believe in God, really will believe in just about anything.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Does Christianity have all the answers?

Carbon River, with Mount
Rainier in the background.
Yesterday, a Christian philosopher named Jeff Cook posted an interesting article on Patheos called "They Don't Believe Because Your God Isn't Desirable."  Among other innovations, Cook did something, like crossing Niagara Falls on a wire, that I have seldom seen attempted in recent years: he cited He Who Must Not Be Cited Accurately (Blaise "bad bet" Pascal), correctly.   (Sorry, I was listening to the last Harry Potter on our car CD player yesterday, on the way back from a bike / hike to Carbon Glacier on Mount Rainier.  That's the volume in which, if you say the name "Voldemort," his minions instantly appear and try to charm you into submission.  So here I am: think of me as one of Pascal's minions.) 

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Jay Budziszewski: What We Can't Not Know (5th most popular)

"Pure Gold." 
87 + / 7 -
I have read hundreds of books on religion, morality, and philosophy, but Budziszewski has taught me much that I did not know, or at least realize. C. S. Lewis' Abolition of Man is wise warning to an age in which we tinker with the formula for man: but Budziszewski  goes beyond Lewis.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Jimmy Carter: "Republicans are Sinners!" (5th most hated review)

Blogs are subjective by definition, so I think I'll skip Christopher Hitchen's god is Not Great, which should be next on my list of my ten least-popular.  This for two reasons: (a) We've had quite a few New Atheist books on the list already, and enough posts on that subject lately, too, and (b) I can't find it.  I checked all the two-star reviews, and it wasn't there: was the book so bad, that it only deserved one star?  170 people thought so, and I don't think I'll wade through that stunted forest in search of my little alder tonight. 

We have extra reviews to burn, anyway.

So here's one of the few political reviews that made either top ten or bottom ten.  And the voting, in fact, was surprisingly close.  This review is a few years old, which has the merit of showing, in retrospect, how absurd Carter's dire concerns really were. 

Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values

 (*) 75 + / 81 -

Monday, July 02, 2012

Gnu civil war

Boy meets girl.  Boy propositions girl.  Girl says, "No."  Elevator door opens.  Boy and girl return to separate hotel rooms.

Miss Watson
Such was the shot heard round the bloggosphere, the first salvo in what began as Elevatorgate, but has now escalated into an international civil war among New Atheists.  The word "civil" here should not be taken as a synonym for "courteous," nor should its connections with "civilization" be exagerrated.  Bodily functions of an impossible or painful nature have been suggested. Stars and curly cues (in our cartoon translation) have flown back and forth like fireworks at the Battle of Fort McHenry.  Venerable names (Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, the girl in question, at an atheist convention in Ireland), have been dragged through the mud.  Arguments Ad Hitlerum have been loosed upon the world.  Anathemas rain down upon the just and unjust.  Everyone is right and rational in his or her own eyes (and no, lines are not neatly drawn between boys and girls -- "gender traitors" are found in both camps, an epidemic of Stockholm Syndrome having accompanied the war, as epidemics often do).  Former friends are now revealed as bullies, cads, implicit justifiers of rape, neo-Nazis, and darn-near religious in their unscientific irrationality, thanks to positions they embrace -- the only embracing allowed in Gnuistan these days, it seems.