Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Recent Reads

I finished reading The Year of Living Biblically and really enjoyed it. I thought the author, A. J. Jacobs, did a good job of taking a fair and unbiased approach to his subject. One thing he pointed out, and it's something I've thought about before, is that even people who say they take the Bible literally don’t really do so. There are many things in the Bible that everyone pretty much agrees should be taken metaphorically. For example, “Ye are the salt of the earth,” clearly doesn’t mean that people are literally salt. Almost every person who looks at the Bible religiously will follow some rules and not others. How many moderns always wear white, for example, which is an injunction in Ecclesiastes?

Another book I’ve started reading is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is what I call an anti-theist and really doesn’t want folks to believe in God. It’s an interesting read so far, although far from a convincing one. Most of his arguments are statistical in nature, although the statistics could be used just as easily to counter his points. I’ll say much more about this eventually in a longer piece.

I also just finished Phillip Ellis’s poetry collection called The Flayed Man and Other Poems. Ellis is an Australian poet and this is the first collection of his I’ve read. It’s really tremendous, particularly “Deep in Darkness” and “Deep in the Midnight,” which are almost companion pieces. I highly recommend it, from Gothic Press.



ivan said...

Quite a twist, Charles.

But the CBC here, when it uses a stereotype there is usually an
"Of the lower orders" before the redneck's dialogue.

Well. You're hardly of the lower orders, though Chris Christofferson
surprised me too with he PhD in

laughingwolf said...

worth a look, thx charles...

the bike's in the 'tagged' post

halfway thru clive barker's 'the great and secret show'

BernardL said...

I've often wondered why atheists are so strident about it. I mean why try to convert someone over to nothingness, and then be annoyed when you can't. If a person doesn't believe in God, why would he/she care what anyone else believes in? The zeal to preach the word of emptiness seems a little goofy to me. I've never been able to understand taking pleasure in destroying Christmas because you don't believe you have a soul. It seems rather pathetic to be a missionary in the pursuit of obliterating faith. :)

Travis Erwin said...

It's always interesting to hear what others are reading.

Tyhitia Green said...

Hmm, I've never read those, Charles, but now you have me curious. I'll have to add them to my never-ending TBR pile. :-)

Stop by my blog for your award. :-)

Lisa said...

I read "The God Delusion" and I, too winced a little at the vehemence in Dawkins' argument, although I think I understand why he believes that as a non-believer, he needs to be as vocal about his non-belief as evangelicals of all stripes (Christian, Muslim and to lesser degrees, other religious types). He recognizes that many Christians (he focuses in on Christians and the western world) to take a more metaphorical, vice literal view of the Bible and I think he does a pretty decent job of making a case that from a scientific standpoint, he can prove that many of the things in the Bible can't literally be true. Conversely, he concedes that since it's not really possible to scientifically prove that something doesn't exist, one can posit probability. I thought it was interesting that he believes that based on science, the probability of life existing on other planets is more likely than the existence of a supernatural being. I think that as a scientist, he is naturally more inclined to want to argue the non-existence of God, but he also makes a fairly good argument that American Democracy in particular (this doesn't seem to be nearly as much of an issue in other western cultures), many Biblical literalists have continued to push an agenda to insert Christianity into government (he is a particularly outspoken opponent of the inclusion of the theory of intelligent design as science in schools). He also makes a case that the argument used to oppose abortion is flawed -- (not necessarily the idea of an opposition, just the argument used). I think he is pretty comprehensive in presenting the case for belief and the case against and although I don't think this particular approach will convert believers, I understand that his perspective is that of a scientist, using reason and that if he was able to find any kind of evidence to support claims of either the existence of God or of the validity of creationism, science would absolutely be all over them. I think the final reason for his zealousness in presenting his argument is that his position is that the agnostic/atheist in our society is one that most non-believers tend to downplay and even conceal, due to a lack of tolerance. I've also read "Mere Christianity" and although I thought it made a decent case, it's not quite as compelling as the case based on science and reason. This book is definitely one that I doubt many believers will want to read and one that skeptics probably will.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, I sometimes consider myself of the lower orders certainly.

Laughingwolf, gotcha.

Bernardl, you know I've always wondered that myself, about the conversion of people. Why an athiest would care about someone else praying, for example, doesn't really make sense to me.

Travis, I find most of my best ideas that way.

Demon hunter, cool! Thankee. I'll stop by.

Lisa, my main problem with Dawkins so far is his arrogance. There's a lot of stuff about folks who are not "eminent scientists" or from the top of the line schools, as if that means they are ignorent. As for his arguments,he makes some good points but he really underplays probabilities to support his ideas. Given the idea of the multiverse, which he appears to accept, then virtually anything can become statistically probable as a single event, including a creator God.

Lisa said...

I think his arguments lose some credibility because he chooses to inject a sarcasm and at times borderline mockery into the narrative and in doing so, he's providing the opposite extreme of what he's arguing against. On the other hand, I think that there has been such a powerful push by fundamentalists over the last twenty years where some pretty extreme messages have been put forward and injected into politics (one example would be the prevalence of politicians who now claim that they aren't sure about evolution -- I don't think that would have happened 20 years ago) that the atheistic/empirical viewpoint deserves some airtime too. It's just a shame that the two biggest mouthpieces for it (Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) are arrogant and as intolerant of theology as their fundamentalist counterparts are of non Biblical perspectives.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Wow, that's some heavy reading!

SQT said...

What I liked about Jacob's book is that it pointed out the kind of pick-and-choose religion most people follow-- not that I don't do that myself. He made me feel better about it actually.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lisa, that's exactly my problem with him. I think he's doing more to entrench the position of moderates against him where a little more of a reasonable tone would sway them toward acceptance. The hard line fundamentalists aren't going to be persuaded anyway. I think we should mostly be pitching our points to the moderates and undecideds.

Archavist, I typically have one nonfiction and one fiction book going, although the nonfiction has spilled over pretty heavily into my home reading lately.

SQT, yes, he made that pretty clear and I think it really points out what most folks do.

Virginia Lady said...

I think that many of the different takes on the Bible come from personal interpretations. Invariably people lay emphasis on different aspects and ignore others, usually without realizing they are doing so.

That helps the strident non-religious types in trying to destroy people's beliefs. I don't really get why anyone would want to though. If following a religion brings you happiness or peace, why would I want to destroy that? It seems incredibly selfish and without purpose.

Steve Malley said...

I thought saying someone was the salt of the earth meant they were bad for the soil...

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm with you and BernardL—why not leave religious people to their religion if it gives them comfort, as long as they're not trying to force it down other people's throats or into laws?

David Cranmer said...

It seems like Christopher Hitchens has opened up a pandora's box of books dealing with this subject.

Cloudia said...

I love evesdropping on this eriudite conversation!

Travis Cody said...

I'm likely to tune out extremist shouting from either point of view. I'd rather take the position of letting each to his own faith or non-faith.

In terms of discussion, it's much easier for me to listen to someone tell me why they believe a certain way than to have them tell me why I should believe the same way, or why what I believe is wrong.

Greg said...

just asked for "the year of living biblically" for a present. thanks for mentioning it.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Have you read Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian? I'm 562 pages into it, bogged down in the history of Vlad the Impaler, and wanting to know whether his head meets up with his torso. If you've read it, I'd certainly like to hear your opinion. As for me, I'm withholding judgement until I've turned the last page.

ivan said...


Don't fret.

There'a guy in Montreal who is convinced he is a cockroach.

Get off that friggin' ceiling, Gregor Samsa!

the walking man said...

opinions are sphincter like eh? I have mine and in most cases find that it is only mine and best kept to myself...unless of course there was a book contract in it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Virginia lady, I think that Dawkins and some of the folks in his circle are most concerned about what they consider "evil done in the name of religion," like 9-11 and so on. And admittedly such things do happen, although I tend to put the blame on human beings, not on a particular religion.

Steve Malley, there sure are a lot of folks around here that are bad for the soil, and trees, and birds.

Shauna Roberts, that's the way I've always felt, but I don't believe Dawkins believes religious people can avoid just those things.

David Cranmer, I haven't read Hitchens book yet. I will probably get around to it. He and DAwkins are quite good friends as I understand.

Cloudia, glad you enjoy.

Travis, one thing that does irritate me about Dawkins is his attempt to use science to back up his opinion. I believe this is a false and dangerous use of science.

Greg, I bet you'll enjoy it.

JR, I haven't read that. Have looked at it, but the sheer size is a bit daunting.

Ivan, but is he praying to a cockroach god and does he want us to join him?

Mark, your cynicism mirrors mine, my friend.

Chris Eldin said...

These books sound really interesting, though I haven't been able to read anything of a philosphical bent in years. Hopefully I'll get back to it. I have a book or two by Karen Armstrong sitting on my shelf, and haven't opened them yet.

writtenwyrdd said...

Interesting list of reads, Charles! I am surprised at how some scientists can't allow the possibility of diety, at all. What difference does it make? I mean, in the long run, it's likely the only way to prove God exists is to die and meet Him or Her, so why get all rabid about it?

Besides, the scientific community knows that the various theories of evolution, cosmology and whatever else religious-oriented pseudo sciences want to refute work--so it shouldn't matter whether others believe in a 'flawed' concept.

Personally, I find that diety and science can coexist quite nicely. Why waste time proving that other people should think like we do, anyhow?

Vesper said...

These books sound interesting. The first two must be read without preconceived ideas.

The poetry's always a delight...

j said...

I haven't read a book in months, and the last one that I read was a re-read.

I have become so caught up in BLOGS, and reading about the lives of others, that I have forsaken books it seems. Gregory Maguire has come out with a new book. I have read all of his novels. I picked it up at the book store and sat it right back on the shelf, telling myself that I should reaquaint myself with the other two books in that series. And I haven't done it yet.

So although I AM reading daily, I am not giving literature the time of day. Surely that is not something lost to me forever as I have been a voracious reader from first grade til, well, the era of the blog.

Interesting reading list that you have and I commend you for reading words on actual pages and not just those on the screen.

Hope your day is good.

Merisi said...

Always interesting to try to understand what it is that makes believers or nonbelievers out of us.

Have you ever visited Cipriano's
Bookpuddle? Among his always book talks, discussions about Dawkins and transcendent reality do break out there occasionally. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Charles -

I'll look forward to any posts you make about Dawkins!

I'm surpised that people find him arrogant - I met him once and was extremely modest and polite. His explanation is that critisism of religion has been taboo for so long that any negative comments come across badly. He does get frustrated with fundamentalists and pseudoscientists but I've heard him talking very fondly about the Archbishop of Canterbury and he loves religious art and music. He also talks about a scale of belief from 1 (certain God exists) to 7 (certain God doesn't exist) and only puts himself at 6 because he knows he can't prove that God does not exist. Personally, I thought the God Delusion was great fun to read (but then I've been an atheist for about 40 years).

They showed the first episode of a new drama series about exorcism in the UK last week. At one point we saw the books a posessed character had been reading (presumably what let the demons in): Dawkins' God Delusion, Hitchen's God is not Great, Harris End of Faith and Dennett's Breaking the Spell. I laughed out loud at that because all four are on my bookshelf ;-) I can feel the green vomit coming already!

Like I said, I'm an atheist, but I still have a problem with the way atheism is being pushed as a replacement for religion - if you remove religion I think you're left with dangerous void. These guys always shy away from the question about attrocities by atheistic regimes. They come up with a fudge about them being cults so the same as religion, but I think they're ducking a difficult truth. My own opinion is that atheists are no better or worse than religious people. Its power that corrupts, not religion. What I'd like to see is more focus on Secular Humanism, which is a positive philosophy and a genuine alternative to religion. Right now, Sam Harris is the only one of the four who seems to be pushing in that direction, but maybe the atheism books are a first step.

- Jon

Cath said...

It's great to get some one's reviews and those look like interesting reads. I hear what you're saying about the taking literally thing - but I always understood taking it literally to be as in obeying God's current laws and requirements. I reckon then it must be in a personal interpretation and we are all individuals.

I like your reviews. To me they seem really balanced. I agree with you that the problem with Dawkins is not his stance or non belief (although obviously as a Jehovah's Witness I disagree with his standpoint - but totally accept his right to his own belief and view) but it is his arrogance. I have not read his book in it's entirety and doubt I will. I caught the arrogance in his interviews when the book was released in the UK.

Anyway, great reviews - thanks.

X. Dell said...

The Jacobs book sounds fascinating. I couldn't imagine growing my beard out again, simply because it's gray now. Then again, does anyone really covet his neighbor's ox these days? (Okay, his ass I can buy. But ox?)

The Dawkins book, though, sounds far more interesting. I'm a frequent listener of WBAI's Time for Free Thought, which is a show dedicated to atheism. One of the things that strikes me about the atheistic position is that it seems, to me, to be fraught with the same kinds of irrationalizations and dogma that one would find in comventional religion. As you describe the Dawkins book, I'm wondering if I will find more of the same were I to read it.

Sarah Hina said...

I do think Dawkins is often too stringent in his arguments. I prefer Sam Harris, to some extent, though he is just as vehement an atheist. And Karen Armstrong is just great--much more respectful in her perspective.

Glad you enjoyed The Year of Living Biblically...I was curious about that one, too.

Maalie said...

> my main problem with Dawkins so far is his arrogance.

I wondered how far down I would have to come before I found the word 'arrogant'.

The question is surely: "Is he right?, not "is he arrogant?".

To dismiss his case because of his arrogance amounts to no more than an ad hominem attack, and that is no argument at all.

Put it this way, would you rather be operated on by a surgeon who was a master in his profession, though regarded by some as arrogant; or by a bumbling novice who demonstrated pleasant humility?

Charles Gramlich said...

Chris Eldin, I’ve certainly been enjoying them.

Writtenwyrd, most scientists I know are clear on the point that science really has nothing to say pro or con about the existence of God. It’s a different way of considering the world. It certainly seems a waste of time to try and consider the existence of God from a scientific point of view. There are answerable questions out there.

Vesper, I agree that all the books out there today on religion and science have to be read with an open mind. I don’t know if any of us can completely escape our preconceived ideas.

Jennifer, I’m a bookaholic. No way I could go through a day without picking up a book.

Merisi, I haven’t been to Bookpuddle. I’ll have to check it out.

Jon, I’m sure he’s probably a perfectly nice guy in person. And he makes plenty of good points. But there is a subtext in the book clearly that suggests that people who aren’t elite scientists or from elite schools are just not that bright. I’d call that arrogant. Plus, to me it just seems rather silly to try to convert people under any circumstance. Let people think independtly.

CrazyCath, hum, I never thought taking the Bible literally had to do with modern or current laws. I thought it meant word for word as literally written in the Bible itself. I try to be balanced and I always keep an open mind when I read, although it’s tough to hold to that stance at times.

X. Dell, I thought the Jacobs book was really fun as well as educational. The Dawkins book is definitely engaging, but I’ve found myself irritated quite frequently, which is not in itself a bad thing. I can enjoy a good recreational anger.

Sarah Hina, I haven’t read Sam Harris or Karen Armstrong, though I’m going to look up stuff about them after I finish my comments. Thanks for the heads up.

Maalie, I wondered how long it would be before someone oversimplified my point. First, of course, it’s about being right, partially right, partially wrong, wrong, arrogant, reasonable, rational, emotional, and many other things. There’s a reason why the debate is a complex one. Second, the fact of Dawkins’ arrogance has nothing to do with whether I would accept his specific concepts or not. It’s simply a statement based on his words in the book. As for your “to put it this way” question, surely you understand that you’ve loaded that question in your favor by setting up a “straw-man” argument, and thus made it meaningless?

To put it this way, if you had to choose between two highly skilled doctors to operate on you, one so arrogant that he couldn’t imagine himself making a mistake, and another who is humble enough to worry every day that he might make a mistake when he has someone’s life in his hands, which would you chose?

Maalie said...

> if you had to choose between two highly skilled doctors....which would you chose?

I think I should ask to see their clinical records. If there were no difference between them, then I wouldn't care.

But I accept your point about the straw-man. Always worth a try ;-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Maalie, I agree, clinical records would be a nice thing to have. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Barbara Martin said...

Reading different types of books whether non-fiction or genres in fiction helps a writer's muse. Which is why I read other books than in the genre I write. I agree with you Charles, that it provides for new ideas and possible conflicts in a different situation.

Erik Donald France said...

The only time I ever wore all white was for the adult Catholic conversion process, and that was strange.

I usually wear black ;->

Today I tried a macrobiotic diner. It had Biblical bread that wasn't bad, but afterwards I thought, "Where's the beef?" And was it kosher? What would Jesus do?

Anonymous said...

Hi Charles -

I just don't get that feeling of arrogance when I read him. I guess thats a subjective thing and we're going to have to agree to disagree ;-)

He does attack people who try to use science to deny evolution but thats becase he's an expert in exactly that area.

Recently his website was banned in Turkey because he "insulted" the Turkish author of a creationist textbook... the book included a picture of an angler's home made fly claiming it was a modern species identical to primeval insects caught in amber and proved that no evolution had occurred... its very difficult to review that sort of mistake without sounding superior ;-)

And I'm sure he never says science proves that God doesn't exist. He just says that science provides better explanations for natural phenomena and therefore its unlikely that God exists.

Hey - I looked up Karen Armstrong and we were born in small towns 25 miles apart!

- Jon

Charles Gramlich said...

Barbara Martin, I agree. It's important for a writer to have a wide basis of input so that what comes out is not too narrow.

Erik, a macrobiotic dinner? That sounds like some kind of unpleasant medical experiment. ;)

Jon, well, it wasn't actually his comments about religious believers that made him seem arrogant to me. It was comments about what "colleges" certain people have gone to, or whether they could really be a "doctor." But different folks read texts differently. I know you're right about his ranking thing, and how he puts himself at a 6 rather than a 7. And I'm glad to see him do that because he knows, ultimately, he doesn't have proof one way or another. I'd never say he claims to "disprove" God using science. I haven't finished the book yet but so far his science consists of probablities (without any actually calculations given) and correlations. There's nothing wrong with probabilities and correlations, but they aren't particularly strong bits of evidence for his position.

Heff said...

I personally think the Bible IS one huge metaphor. Ok, I'll stop right there.

Anonymous said...

Always surrounded by religion and the religious I've always been afraid to talk about religion.

Cath said...

Charles, this is such a well balanced debate and I have "enjoyed" (if that is the right word) every last bit of it. Please don't think I was trying to be controversial - I was actually trying to explain a standpoint in as few words as possible without preaching, and failed! I'm not going to even try to explain... I know what I mean.
But I did want to say that I really do take your point and I am glad that you review these books. They're good reviews.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, from my studies, though there are some historical things that happened and are recorded in the Bible, though often not in exact detail, most of the Bible does seem metaphorical.

Jack, I have been too, and it's only lately that I feel in a position to do so. I wish it was easier to talk about but people get very emotional sometimes.

Crazycath, I didn't think you were trying to be controversial. I always appreciate your input. It's always fair and balanced.

Kimberly A. Suta said...

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Sam said...

It's interesting to compare Dawkins to Jacobs - I suppose it's easier in our society to defend a religious viewpoint with the weight of moral 'right' behind you.
However, I find it harder and harder to believe in God, despite (or maybe because of?) all the cutesy e-mails I get from my cousin the religious nut.

Mary Witzl said...

I've met just as many gung-ho evangelist atheists as I have Bible-thumping missionaries. Both groups tire me out.

My mother used to have fun with the evangelists who came to our door. She knew the Bible better than most of them and she was familiar with all their arguments, but none of them could do what SHE could -- argue persuasively and logically. I wonder if she ever converted anyone...

J. L. Krueger said...


Good list. My eldest daughter who's going through the strident athiest phase read "The God Delusion" to get ammo for her arguments.

She was shocked when she tried some at the dinner table and I could logically counter every argument.

I think Ghengis Khan's take on religion was best: Never interfere with someone's religious beliefs.

Almost caught up.

Maalie said...

I am enjoying the continuing discussion.

> And I'm sure he never says science proves that God doesn't exist.

I agree with that. He does however say that the probability of God existing is so low as to be out of the frame for consideration (words to that effect).

Charles Gramlich said...

Kimberly, this sounds somewhat like spam posting, but I always link to those who visit me regularly. And I visit them as well.

Sam, learning about all the different types of religion certainly seems to make the idea of "one" religion being right while all others are wrong, to be rather hard to swallow.

Mary Witzl, I really don't like begin preached "at." I used to have enjoy visiting with the Jehovah's Witnesses that came to see us when I was growing up. We'd play chess and discuss all manner of religious isseus. I never converted them, or was converted by them, but I rather enjoyed their company.

J.L., that's largely why I tell people that, to me, religion is a matter of faith and not science and it's not terribly useful to try to connect them. Nor do I find them incompatable for a full life.

Maalie, he pretty much equates the belief in God with belief in the tooth fairy, although he does have a seven point scale, with 7 as absolute knowledge there is no God, and he puts himself at 6.

Sidney said...

My co-worker has been reading that. I guess I ought to give that a look.

Miladysa said...

The Year of Living Biblically - I think I am going to give this and the poems a go.

Thanks for the recommendations :D

j said...


It's Twilight, but Hey! I reading!

For some reason, I just had to share that :)

Have a pleasant Sunday.

Livingsword said...

Hi Charles…..

Interesting article…

The Bible does have poetic and metaphorical sections and it also has literal sections…

As for following rules in Ecclesiastes or the Levitical code followers of Jesus are not bound by such rules or laws…however if people are trying to get to God thru rules, being “good” or religious they are bound by them. These Laws are impossible to perfectly follow and that is part of their purpose.

The Law acts as a teacher, billboards pointing to our inability to have relationship with God thru following religion and thru trying to be good. The Law points us to our sin and inability to draw near to God thru such religion.

However the good news is God has chosen to draw near to us thru Jesus and we can come to God thru grace a free unearnable undeserved gift but as it is a gift we must turn from ourselves trying to be good or religious and trust the Giver of the gift to receive this gift of relationship with God…

Dawkins book similarly to Hitchens book (both of which I have read) often stand up straw men and knock them down and many times are extraordinarily misinformed on the Bible….The God they attack is most often not at all like the God of the Bible…

Charles Gramlich said...

Sidney, it'll get to you one way or the other.

Miladysa, I enjoyed them both.

Jennifer, I haven't read that one. I have some kind of resistence to reading popular books.

Livingsword, thanks for visiting. The God of the Bible is definitely a complex entity.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

My dad used to be an atheist, until he realized that the atheists he was reading and hanging out with were just as intent at proselytizing their beliefs as anyone else. He decided to opt for being an agnostic, instead.

Charles Gramlich said...

Rachel, Even Dawkins agrees that agnosticism is the logical approach.