Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The root of all evil?

I watched today the Richard Dawkins documentary on religion - The root of all evil? First thing I have to say is that he is right not to like the title that the documentary got saddled with. It is a faux clever faux intellectual title in so far as the phrase comes from the Bible itself. The reason why it is faux intellectual is because it does not actually fit with that the original quoted is about, i.e. the love of money. This is almost as annoying as one Star Trek movie being called The Undiscovered Country and those involved insisting that the undiscovered country is meant to be the future whereas Shakespeare, or should I say Hamlet, was talking about the afterlife. Of course, one could say that people are free to use phrases as they wish – and so they are – but if the use has nothing to do with the original being quoted, the use of the quote just suggests facile intellectual pretensions lacking in any substance. So, the title is bad. But that’s not very important.

Much more important is what Dawkins says, which is that religion is an evil and an unnecessary evil. In reference to his memetic theory (interesting how it comes up just after I happen to have responded to an internet meme) Dawkins says that religion should be thought of as a virus that infests our minds. And that’s just the start of it. Dawkins makes all of the strongest criticisms of religion that have been made by atheists for years and does quite well. I particularly like how he brings out the immoral nature of the claim that morality ought to be based upon the fear of judgement after death. Watching him talk with a range of religious figures I found myself amazed by two things. It is clear that Dawkins is a fairly easy-going man, with the manner you would expect of an English intellectual, so it was surprising to see him say quite confrontational things to religious fanatics. On the other hand, it was also striking how he managed to control his feelings and keep speaking in a fairly normal tone when those he spoke to turned around and accused him of all manner of profoundly immoral things or simply said things that were breath-takingly dumb or cruel.

The most interesting point that Dawkins made was to do with religious education. Although he did not say so straight out, I think that he would probably argue that many of the problems with religion could be resolved if only children were not educated in some particular set of religious beliefs and were, instead, given a secular education. Certainly, he made his opposition to the current increase in the number of religious schools in the UK quite plain. This is, of course, very relevant to my own individual situation as my daughter will in a few years reach school age. Thankfully, around here religious schools are rare and my wife would be as opposed to sending our daughter to one as I am. Still, all kids have to attend either religion classes, i.e. Catholicism classes, or ethics classes while in school. The norm is for them to go to religion classes. Of course, the classes, both religion and ethics, are badly taught and the children treat them as the joke that they are. Still, I suspect that the question of whether my daughter is to attend religion or ethics classes will come up in a few years and I just hope that it will be possible to resolve it relatively easily.

Like I wrote in a post a while ago, religion ought to be treated like smoking. And yes, if I see people smoking inside my house I ask them to stand on the porch.

What have you been reading?

I was tagged for a literary meme by a blogging friend of mine. This is something just right for me.

1. One book that changed your life

O.K. This may seem a somewhat strange choice to those who do not know me but, to those who do, it will make perfect sense. I think that out of all the books I have read it would have to be Alexandre Koyre’s From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe that changed my life the most. It did so by getting me to think about issues that in the end led to my academic career and many more books. And would you believe that I do not have a copy of it right now?

2. One book you have read more than once.

There are a few fiction and non-fiction books that I tend to reread at irregular intervals. However, I find that it is poetry that is most rewarding in terms of rereading. In fact, I would argue that most poems are an acquired taste – you have to read them several times to really get into them and to fully appreciate them. So, the books that I have read hundreds of times and plan to read hundreds more are books of poetry. Among these is The Concise Columbia Book of Poetry which was given to me by a friend as an introduction to English poetry. Much worn and appreciated.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island.

What would I want to have with me on a desert island? Depends on whether I was marooned or vacationing. If vacationing, I would probably take something by Joseph Conrad with me that I am yet to read, maybe Nostromo. In fact, now that I think of it, I’m not going to wait till I get to the desert island but will start as soon as I get my hands on a copy. If I was marooned, however, I would chose something much more practical such as All you need to know about how to survive on a desert island and be rescued. Failing that, the complete works of Lenin, for kindling.

4. One book that made you giddy?

Giddy? That’s a big ask. I find that I get something of the kind of emotion from reading poetry and a different kind of giddiness from reading science. In terms of poetry, the best example I can think of is reading Rilke’s New Poems. Several poems in that collection caused me of gasp at their force and make shivers run up and down my back just thinking about them. The two that come to mind immediately are “The archaic torso of Apollo” and “Pont du Carrousel”. There are many translations. In terms of science books I could list highly technical texts but, instead, I think that Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World is the better example. The reason is that Sagan writes very clearly about the kind of giddiness I am speaking of – the sense of wonder at the elegance of the universe.

5. One book that you wish had been written

I don’t know about books but I do know about poems. I wish that Coleridge had not been interrupted in writing “Kubla Khan” and was able to finish the whole poem in the moment of opium assisted inspiration instead of speaking with his untimely guest and then returning to snatch fragments from his memory, leaving the poem an enchanting ruin of the majestic structure that had existed in his mind. The first couple of stanzas are so perfect that, even in its actual state, the poem is one of the greatest in the English language.

6. One book that wracked you with sobs?

I can’t remember what books actually caused me to cry but I can say which had a big emotional impact upon me. One that comes to mind is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Another is The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. I could also add Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad and Hunger by Knut Hamsun. The books share two characteristics that made them as powerful as they were. The first was their moral seriousness – each was concerned in some way with moral questions and did not try to give easy answers to them, instead being willing to delve into the complexity of reality. This leads to the second characteristic – psychological realism – the characters, such as Greene’s famous whisky priest, described in the books are fully rounded people, with their reactions being necessary given their psychological make-up. As such, these books are the mirror opposite of books like those written by Dan Brown, in which the characters are mere pawns moved around at the author’s whim.

7. One book you wish had never been written

I could say The Bible but that would be a silly example. Humans are not religious because the Bible was written and, if it weren’t Christianity, some other religion would have come to dominate in the world, possibly causing even more harm. In fact, the problem is that much the same could be said about any book one might care to mention here. There is the saying that one should not trust a man who has only read a single book. This is as true of one good book as of one bad book. So, there is no book that I wish had not been written. Mind you, I may one day come to feel that way about a book of my own that I come to see as inadequate.

8. One book you’re currently reading

I like to have several books on the go at once. Among the ones I have open right now, I am (re)reading Stuart Vyse’s Believing in Magic. If someone is interested in the psychology of superstition this is the best place to start. At times it feels like a travel guide through psychological theories in the way that it jumps from one topic to another without tying them together properly, unfortunately. This is because Vyse intended it as something of an introduction to psychology – and it works in that way, too. Still, there is no better book that would gather together the various empirical results that have been obtained in the last few decades.

I have also just finished Collapse by Jerod Diamond. Diamond is a polymath and brings this broad knowledge to the books he writes. Collapse is about the various reasons for which various human cultures have disappeared. Not surprisingly, he makes the point that many of the same forces that led to previous collapses are at work right now and that we are in danger of a similarly grisly end unless we begin to change how we deal with our environment.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read.

I wish there was just one. Very often someone will come up to me and say “There’s this book you have to read!” After listening to them I often agree, so they then ask when I will read it. Usually, my response is, “Probably never.” They rarely like that and always ask, “Why?” Well, as I explain, the number of books ‘that I absolutely have to read’ is greater than the number of books I can possibly read in the decades I have left (not even taking into account the fact that I am also supposed to write and spend time on such other things as helping to bring up my daughter).

10. Now tag five bloggers

Right. I tag Sportin’ Life and Doombreed. That’s not quite five, I know. But if everyone tagged five people we’ve have the whole population of the galaxy tagged after a fairly small number of iterations – that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Does God hate married men?

There is an old joke about how the easiest way to make a woman lose her libido is to put a wedding ring on her finger. Well, the figures are in and the scientists concur. Within a few years of settling down, women tend to lose their libido. All I can do is commiserate with the other married guys.

A number of evolutionary reasons for this lamentable state of affairs have been suggested, none of them, strangely enough, mentioning the possibility that the drop in women’s libido may be due to them coming to know all of their partner’s bad habits. However, I think that the real reason is that God made us that way because he hates it when we have long-term committed relationships instead of humping around like the rest of the monkeys.

I wonder how the "that's not natural" brigade copes with this result? Wait, I know; they'll do the same thing they always do - not even know that it exists.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What is the most persistent threat we face?

Everyone was afraid of the bird flu just a few months ago. Right now it is the fear of everyone else aboard the plane one is travelling on. Yet it is seems to me that very few have been willing to face the biggest threat our way of living is facing right now – paranoia. The latest news is that a plane to Washington was rerouted and accompanied to the alternative airport by not one but two fighter planes after what was deemed a threat to its safety. What was this danger that justified affecting the lives of hundreds of people? Well, if the reports are correct (a big ‘if’, I grant), the threat in question was a sixty year old woman with hand cream and matches. I guess if a bunch of guys without plane tickets, explosives or passports can lead to a nationwide critical threat level and cause a break down in the functioning of the nation’s air transport system – all without actually doing anything – an elderly lady with matches is cause to arm the Sidewinders on F-16s. Like John Reid says, “a persistent and very real” threat… of becoming paranoid, irrational maniacs who jump at the sound of someone shutting a Koran, that is.

What would it be like to live in Michigan?

Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like bringing up kids in the States right now and am very glad to be living the EU. I just came across a great example of what it must be like, written by Dennis Perrin, in his blog, Red State Son, where he describes the particular mix of “happiness, love, and fear” that a day out with his kid at the swimming pool makes him feel. Surely, one of the great things about the EU is that no-one expects you to have any silly patriotic feelings about it.

BTW, I love the lay-out of Perrin’s blog.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Did he who made the dinosaur also write this letter?

Kent Hovind, who claimed to offer 250,000 dollars to anyone who could provide scientific evidence for evolution, has got himself into serious legal trouble because of very shady business dealings that he tried to cover with ridiculous religious claims such as that the business owner is actually God and not Hovind and his wife. The classic comment from the PensacolaNewsJournal.com was:

Members of Creation Science Evangelism said at the time that building permits violated their "deeply held" religious beliefs.

One has to wonder what Hovind’s reaction would be to receiving the following letter in the mail:

Lord God Almighty


Mr. Kent Hovind

Dinosaur Adventure Land

5800 N. Palafox St.

Pensacola, Florida, USA, Earth, etc.

Dear Mr. Hovind,

It has recently come to our attention that, for a number of years, you have been presenting yourself as our representative and, in that role, have been involved in a number of business ventures, and that, due to your failure to observe your local authority’s taxation regulations, you have been charged with 58 offences. Unfortunately, the avenue of pursuing damages in your local courts is unavailable to us for a number of reasons, the primary one being that there are, as yet, no lawyers in heaven. As such, we are forced to merely remind you that your case will, sooner or latter, reach the court of last resort, where you will find that our motions get a full hearing.

As such, we urge you to cease and desist from bringing further disrepute to our name, in particular by presenting yourself as our representative and engaging in activities that are likely to bring you to the attention of your local law enforcement and taxation authorities. As we are sure you are aware, at no time has any special authority been granted to you to represent our persons within any territory, the territory of the United States of America in particular. Should you feel that any authority was granted to you by us, implicitly or explicitly, we inform that any such implied or explicit authority is hereby revoked permanently. Had you actually been employed by us, you would have been fired a long time ago.

At the same time, you are to cease and desist making claims to your judicial and administrative authorities which, if accepted would entail that we are to be liable for property tax in your local jurisdiction. In particular, you are not to claim that everything you have actually belongs to us. As you must be aware the Earth was granted to its inhabitants in perpetuity, thus we no longer hold any property claims to any parts of it, in particular to the business ventures in which you have been involved. This step was taken in part for the express purpose of avoiding the very kind of legal entanglement that your actions would have us involved in. As my son pointed out, just imagine the trouble we’d have with inheritance tax.

Also, we strongly suggest that you quit depending upon a series of two thousand year old myths to shape your understanding of the world. While it is true that the stories of Genesis talk about Adam and Eve, do you seriously think that this was how we did things? Allow us to ask you a rhetorical question – Do you understand quantum physics? Allow us to answer the question for you – no, you don’t. Neither did the people two thousand years ago. We could have tried telling them about the weak and strong nuclear forces and how they separated away from the electromagnetic force mere instants after the big bang but what do you think they would have understood? So, of course we told them about gardens and other things they knew about. They had an excuse for their ignorance, you do not. If you want to know how we made the world work, go read some science, for crying out loud. And stop saying all those silly things about the dinosaurs – they were around for much longer than your lot are likely to be.

Finally, we find it quite objectionable when you claim to be absolutely certain about many things, including our existence. Certainty is our prerogative. Heck, you can’t even prove whether we exist with this letter. As the Holy Ghost said the other day, certainty unfounded on evidence shows either an over-inflated ego or an underdeveloped imagination.

See you later,

Lord God Almighty

P.S. Mary says to say hello.


1. Glen Stoll, your representative (he’s in trouble, too)

2. B. L. Zeebub, our representative

3. Files