I am not reading a book.

Washington, DC is shut down today, and besides doing some catch-up work here and there, I essentially have a bonus day off. Hooray! What a rare and often-wished-for opportunity to do some quiet, relaxed book reading! Visit my Goodreads page and you can see that I am juggling several books that I have yet to complete, and I have a list a mile long of “to-reads” as yet un-attempted. The baby is sleeping (scratch that, back in a second…)

[Two hours later]

Anyway. The point being, on this snow-blanketed day, there’s far more time than usual to engage in some literary imbibing. But here I am on the Web, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, poking around the RSS reader, etc. I know that the act of reading doesn’t require a herculean effort, but lately the energy, attention span, and patience it requires has eluded me. And I love reading (once I’m into it)! It’s that kick-start that is so difficult, particularly if I’m not totally enthralled by my current book.

There’s just so much *other* reading to be done! Not only is there blog and article reading online, but there are tweets (that lead to more blogs and articles), my various magazine subscriptions (which, since I am paying for them, I feel obliged to read), and since I do communications for a lobbying organization, I have to step up the pace on regular news consumption (major newspapers, aggregators, etc.). The latter one alone takes whatever quiet time my rain ride to work allows me.

While I genuinely love the act of reading, books are falling by the wayside. I own a Kindle (which I adore), I have a slew of books in my library I’m dying to get to, myriad Christmas and birthday-gifted books that others thought I’d enjoy, so I have to get to those, plus the backpack-full of books I’m still in the middle of. Meanwhile, I read about people who read several books a week, and my friend Ryan is doing a blog project on reading 100 books in a year. Another friend I have through Twitter is doing only about half that, a book a week for a year. I could never do that!

Part of it, I imagine, is that I don’t read much fiction. Anecdotally, I hear that fiction goes by more quickly than nonfiction, but I can hardly put that to the test, as I have as my current fiction selection War and Peace, and I’ve resolved, for no other reason than the novelty of it, to read it entirely on the iPhone—I wanted to really see if there was truth to the iPhone-as-e-reader cliché that says, yes, the iPhone is great for reading, “…but you wouldn’t want to read War and Peace on it!”

I’m getting off-track somewhat. Even when I do get to reading a book, it’s sparse. Too often, I read 10 or so pages before I get too sleepy, or I’m distracted by email/baby/life. And let’s be honest, even those magazines often don’t get the attention their subscription prices deserve, and the newspaper is often merely scanned and discarded. I think that in terms of word count, I read more from blog posts and articles about reading, ebooks, and publishing (a recent but I think enduring fascination of mine) than I do from actual books themselves.

One might think, well, Paul, you just don’t like books that much. But I know that’s not true—I know that good books move and enrich me more than just about any other medium I consume (perhaps tied with music, something else that has suffered since I stopped being a twenty-something). Perhaps part of the problem is the commitment of time necessary to complete a book, but I mainly mean those books that turn out to be only okay. I recently read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time (part of my attempt to catch up with all those books I was assigned in high school and fobbed off due to my shameful degree of laziness) and I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those moments in life when a piece of art truly changes you and affects you at your core. That’s not happening with any of the books I have in the pipeline right now, but nor should I expect so. Some books—most books that I pick up, thankfully—are “just good.” And that should be good enough to keep me at it.

Which, of course, still lands me into conflict with the realities of how many hours there are in a day and all the other text-based commitments I already have.

I’m not like those who lament the “shortening” of certain types of discourse through technology. Mark Ambinder of The Atlantic (one of those aforementioned subscribed-to magazines) recently explained to Michael Kinsley what his reading day is like, and it rang familiar to me to a certain extent. Though I don’t rely on Twitter nearly to the degree Ambinder does, I still understand how valuable it has become, and I certainly value the relationships—new kinds of relationships—that I have developed on that platform. As I noted, Twitter is not really about short bursts of blather for me (though it is also that), but the tweets serve as little windows into deeper reading I would otherwise miss, and a chance for me to share with my 1000+ followers the work I am doing and writing by others that I find compelling enough to warrant others’ attention. Facebook is similar for me, though more lighthearted and social in nature. [Follow me on Twitter here!]

But maintaining these gardens takes time, it takes thought. I enjoy the back-and-forth flow of information so much that I have felt compelled to start a Tumblr blog just to catch the things I don’t know what else to do with (a quote that is too long for Twitter, an article that doesn’t suit my blog or my Facebook audience, etc.)—and on this, I am essentially copying Text Patterns’ Alan Jacobs and his use of Tumblr, or somewhat mimicking the short-burst blogging style of Andrew Sullivan.

So I heartily embrace social media, social reading and social writing. I’m extremely fortunate to be alive and of the age to participate at such a time as this. But it must be said that it only enables one of my pre-existing conditions: laziness. My dad, a voracious reader himself whom I can only dream of matching in terms of quantity, is befuddled by my use of the word “lazy” in this context. Reading is the fun part of the day, he says. There is no effort involved for him; it is always the
path of least resistance and the greatest return.

But my personality, my attention span, my physiology, my habits have not developed that way (all of which, almost, is my own fault). Books suffer, which really means that I suffer, depriving myself of what they hold. I should be reading right now, but instead, I’m sitting here writing about how I don’t read.

Perhaps my only avenue to mitigating this concern is to learn speed reading. Hm. Now, when would I find the time to do that?

Oh, and I want to learn French, too. Can we please just add an extra day onto the weekend?

Would that even help?

Bryson’s “At Home”: A Delightful Slog through Human Misery

About halfway through Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, one can’t help but come to a couple of stark conclusions. One, that most of humanity’s domestic life, for the vast majority of time time we had domestic lives, was full of suffering and misery the likes of which we moderns can barely imagine. Two, that the tiny percentage of the species blessed with an overabundance of money and/or status have not been content to simply live well, but have wasted vast economic resources to spoil and aggrandize themselves in ways that would make Ozymandias cringe.

Bryson is a wonderful writer, and his storytelling is as usual conversational while remaining high-minded, as he clearly glories in his research and discoveries while allowing the space for the reader to catch up to him.

But his subject, I suppose, necessitated the retelling of these two central themes I’ve mentioned: The misery of the underclasses (disease, vermin, cold, being overwhelmed by feces, etc.) and the unabated vanity of the rich (who also, it should be noticed, were subject to disease and other unpleasantness, but often in Bryson’s telling faced ruin by their own ignorance or hubris). But if it is necessary, it is also relentless. Story after story, anecdote after anecdote is a tail that either makes one feel deep pity for those who are crushed under the weight of their poverty or nausea over the largess of the aristocracy. In between are the triumphs, the brilliant ideas, the advances, but it becomes almost exhausting when one contemplates the mayhem from which the victories emerge.

Here’s a good summation from the book, a quote from Edmond Halley (of comet fame), that I feel gets to the heart of the long crawl of human domesticity — human daily life — over the centuries.

How unjustly we repine at the shortness of our Lives and think our selves wronged if we attain not Old Age; where it appears hereby, that the one half of those that are born are dead in Seventeen years.… [So] instead of murmuring at what we call an untimely Death, we ought with Patience and unconcern to submit to that Dissolution which is the necessary Condition of our perishable Materials.

And in the meantime, invent the telephone and the flush toilet and make it a little easier.

A recommended read; a slog, but a delightful slog.

Armstrong’s “The Case for God”: A Case Not Made

Few religious thinkers have eased the consciences of spiritual liberals, anti-fundamentalist religious moderates, and functional nonbelievers unwilling to stake any affirmatively atheistic ground than Karen Armstrong. For years she has been making the assertion that her scholarship proves that the “great” monotheisms ought not be associated with the fear, xenophobia, irrational faith in the absurd, violence, or misogyny that so they so often encourage, but that they have their “true” foundations in love and tolerance–and anyone who doesn’t think so hasn’t been doing it right. As much as that assertion causes many skeptics to arch their eyebrows, it at least sounds like a good thing to which the faiths could aspire if they were so inclined. Alas.

Her latest book, The Case for God, is not meant to explain the various faiths’ dispositions or ideological foundations, but to convince the reader that the most commonly held notions of God, those of a being that created the universe and “exists,” are false, and that in actuality, God is an unknowable, unfathomable concept for which the very term “existence” is too limited. If you think that sounds like a pretty weak basis for an argument when dealing with such a grand concept’s veracity, you’re right. And despite Armstrong’s impressive breadth of knowledge and her nuanced grasp of various thinkers’ positions throughout the generations, her case never adds up.

Part of the trouble, of course, is that her book’s premise is challenged by her own explanation of what God is. It is nigh impossible for me to understand how someone can build a case for God if the central thesis is that God is an unknowable pseudo-entity-but-not-really, something that mere humans are wholly incapable of defining. Where does that leave your book?

One would hope that an intellect like Armstrong’s would note this paradox. Instead, she throws her lot in with apophatic explanations of God from a chosen slate of theologians, limiting the “correct” discussion of the nature of God to defining what Godis not. Thus, The Case for God is not so much a set of proofs for God’s existence, but a selection of and elaboration on the apophatic positions of particular religious thinkers, united in their unwillingness to pin God down to the realm of the perceivable. It is not a case, per se, but a series of similarly-themed guesses.

There is another paradox in Armstrong’s venture. Repeatedly throughout the book, she laments how “rationalist” notions of God (pretty much all of them since the Enlightenment, a period about which she seems to have mixed feelings) that picture a supreme being of some form that “exists” in the way most (okay, just about all) people define the term, and she is quite clear that such a position is flatly incorrect and–what might be the worst sin in her eyes–”idolatrous.” But by the very act of asserting that some notions of God are incorrect, she gives the lie to her position that God is an unknowable. If it is not, how can she know who is and is not correct in their beliefs?

Armstrong has a particular bone to pick with what we understand today as atheism, most vigorously with the New Atheists, who she says choose the idol-God of the incorrectly-religious to assert the non-existence of. But Armstrong herself, as many have pointed out before me, defines God out of all notions of existence anyway, leaving nothing to believe in to begin with. Speaking for atheists (if I may for the moment), I think it is safe to say that whether we are talking about a vengeful Old Testament Yahweh or a non-definable, quasi-existent infinite ultimateness of the divine logos, both are equally unprovable, devoid of evidence, and not worthy of acceptance. Like many of the New Atheists’ critics, she complains that they are not sufficiently well-versed in theology, and are therefor in no position to weigh in on the question of God’s existence. This is akin to saying that one cannot assert the nonexistence of the Starship Enterprise unless one has studied every episode of every Star Trek series, earned a degree in startrekology, and published scholarly articles on the debate as to whether resistance truly is futile.

To Armstrong, this rationalist line of thinking shuts out alternate means of arriving at “truths,” for Armstrong rests on the also-unprovable notion that truth is a fluid, utterly subjective concept that can be realized by means other than reason. This mindset obviously opens up a formidable can of worms, as any cockamamie “methodology” that someone chooses, and any absurd answers they turn up, suddenly become equally valid. For Armstrong, there is rational truth and religious truth, and religion–something she insists should be viewed as a discipline and practice rather than a belief system–is equally capable of arriving at truth as science. What truths religion is supposed to reveal is, of course, not terribly well defined, and one is forced to infer that the correct truths are those that Armstrong has revealed to us; God is too out-there for mere existence, thinking otherwise is wrong, and we should only talk about what God is not, though we’re pretty sure it’s all about love and tolerance. Throw in a few dashes of meaningless terms like “the infinite,” “ultimate truth,” “inner essences,” and things that have “no qualities,” and you have some idea of what Armstrong is talking about. Or, more likely, you don’t.

I would be remiss if this review did not also highlight what was particularly troubling about the book; Armstrong’s twisting of the practice of science to imply that at its best it is grounded in some theological inspiration. Armstrong praises those greats of ages past, Newton, Descartes, Kepler, and claims that they practiced a “science rooted in faith” because they were personally inspired by religious feeling to pursue knowledge. Now, it may very well be that all these men were driven to discovery out of religious fervor, but that does not in any way make the method they chose, the scientific method, somehow dependent upon or tainted by superstition. Their motivations may have been faith-based, their science was not, and could not have been. Her assertion otherwise is as meaningless as saying that their work was rooted in money if they were paid for their research. She also offends the sensibilities by looping in modern physicists who, since they often deal in invisible abstracts, are examples of science-as-faith-exercise. I would imagine that most of those physicists would balk at the idea of their work being classified as religious in this way.

And while she praises those scientists who have been open to the supernatural, she castigates Galileo for that same disposition. The difference is that Galileo was punished for his pursuit of actual truth, and that punishment was delivered by the earthly representatives of the ruling faith tradition. This is apparently an uncomfortable and inconvenient bit of history for Armstrong, as it is an instance in which religion actively suppresses and penalizes understanding of reality, and so she is careful to let us know that Galileoshares the blame with Pope Urban VIII for his house arrest and public shaming, because Galileo was “pe
rversely intent on reconciling” his scientific findings with scripture. This kind of faith-inspired science is perverse to Armstrong. Is it because he, unlike Kepler and Newton, was punished for it by the ministers of that very faith?

There is more to be said about Armstrong’s puzzling take on the purpose of religion; something of a set of rituals designed to make one a better person in some undefined way, the vaguest kind of self-improvement. But if every believer on Earth were religious in the Armstrongian sense, there probably wouldn’t be too much of a need for affirmative atheism or a secularist movement. Goodness knows, she has won the congratulations of the fuzzily-spiritual and not-quite religious all over the mainstream press, particularly from liberals. But her God is as flimsy of a hypothesis as any other more “idolatrous” version, whether she would deign to allow her position to be subject to such earthly terms as “hypothesis” or not. The case for God is not only a weak one, but it is, like Armstrong’s own God, for all intents and purposes non-existent.

Lisa Miller Exorcises Her New Atheist Demons

Lisa Miller of Newsweek, it seems, has had it with us nonbelievers. In her latest column, she seems to be indulging is some form of guilt-laden catharsis, awash in shame for having devoted too much precious ink to the New Atheists.

For five years, since the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith … three charismatic men—Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Hitchens (who is a NEWSWEEK contributor)—have not just dominated the conversation, they’ve crushed it. And so they’ve become celebrities.

It’s not their fault, though, says Miller. It’s the media, all too attracted to the latest shiny (or loud) thing that comes along.

… this version of the conversation has gone on too long. We have allowed three people to frame it; its terms—submitting God to rational proofs and watching God fail—are theirs.

I think this is wrong to begin with. The New Atheists have attracted more attention than atheists have generally, certainly, but the idea that they drive the conversation about faith and its value to society is laughably wrong. We are bombarded with coverage that presents faith in a gauzy, cozy package that begins from the assumption that religion is a positive force in society—indeed, assumes that it is an assumed element of people’s lives. The New Atheists may currently dominate the discussion about atheism, but as far as the “faith-verus-reason” debate, if it happens at all, it is not in any way owned by the New Atheists. Perhaps if more people were brave enough to engage in it, this would not seem to be the case to Miller. She goes on.

We in the media have to bear some of that responsibility. Just as we covered Jerry Falwell when he said the Teletubby Tinky Winky was gay, we cover the “new atheists” because following controversy is part of what we do. As religion editor of NEWSWEEK, I have done my share of enabling these battles, most recently in a September interview with Dawkins.

So according to Miller, covering Dawkins is equivalent to enabling the bigotry of Jerry Falwell. ‘I don’t believe God exists’ = ‘Gays are immoral.’ This nonsense is insulting not only in the gross comparison of the New Atheist thinkers to irrational, demagogic, right wing hate-mongers. It also robs the atheist movement of its genuine intellectual substance and relevance. Falwell was simply trying to rile up the credulous and spread homophobia. The New Atheists are trying to spread reason and critical thinking. You may not like their tone, but the intellectual foundations and intentions could not be more different.

But Miller isn’t through. Now it’s time to really lay on the stereotyping.

But we can’t shoulder all the blame. The atheists are, more than other interest groups, joyous cannibals and regurgitators of their own ideas. They thrive online, where like adolescent boys they rehash their rhetorical victories to their own delight.

There may be a grain of truth in that this kind of “regurgitation” does indeed exist, as it does with any like-minded group from liberals to libertarians to librarians. But Miller says “the atheists” are this way, implying that atheists as a whole all behave in this same “adolescent” manner. It’s astounding this kind of language was even allowed in the pages of Newsweek by the supposedly pluralistically-minded Jon Meacham.

The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school, each showing off to impress … whom? Let’s move on.

Let me answer your question: No one. They are three (and if you include Daniel Dennett, four) of—yes— the smartest guys in the room trying to get us to stop buying into nonsense, myth, and superstition, to stop giving religion immunity in the public discourse, stop assuming that faith is intrinsically a good thing, and to bring a little reason and critical thinking to the public debate. If it seems like they’re showing off, it’s probably just because they’re right, and sometimes the truth is a little uncomfortable. So let’s not “move on” until the lesson has sunk in.

Most of the public criticism of the New Atheism is, unfortunately, based on this queasy discomfort over exaggerations of their “style” (as though all four men were the same). This has been the subject of a lot of my writing, and so it was a large part of my recent address to the Northern Virginia Ethical Society last weekend (which I may or may not post later). This kind of attack is bad enough when it’s based on a distortion of the New Atheist approach, but once in a while these broadsides cross over from simply being a poorly formed argument or a misinformed rant, and into the territory of the unjustified maligning of entire group. This is par for the course for reactionaries like Charlotte Allen. I’m sorry to see Lisa Miller creep into their camp. With the more sophisticated set, this almost always happens under the guise of frustration with the tone or the supposed futility of the New Atheists’ argument, but it disguises an underlying prejudice against the marginalized subgroup they often represent. This is about a frustration with atheists as a whole, not Christopher Hitchens. This is about discomfort with reason trumping faith.

Miller does one good thing in this otherwise astoundingly ham-fisted column—she notes that other atheist voices have not received the degree of notice that they have earned, including Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain of Harvard, and my favorite, Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet and author of Doubt: A Historyand The Happiness Myth. But these voices are not being shut out, which is Miller’s implication. They simply have not garnered the same amount of attention as the New Atheists have, most likely due to the very reasons that Miller suspects: the New Atheists are louder, and their message is more directly confrontational. But there is nothing stopping her or anyone else in the media from cluing in to Epstein’s work on secular community and morals, or Hecht’s wonderful perspectives on history and culture.

Of this, Miller writes, “This new conversation won’t be sexy,” but she’s wrong. It’s only “not sexy” if she and others in her position fail to make it so. Writers and commentators shouldn’t feel like their arms are being twisted to find the compelling within the subtle and the nuanced. It shouldn’t be that hard, if only they will take the time to move beyond the stereotypes. I’ll be waiting.

Parade of the Fanatical Ignoramuses

It is almost becoming a ritual in our house these days. At the end of a long day at work, the wife and I turn on MSNBC and watch, stunned, as Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart put on the parade of angry right wing lunatics. We sit, mouths agape, as we see manufactured rage at town halls over something tangential to health care, we see Glenn Beck weeping over something called “oligarhy” and a whole circus of birthers, deathers, truthers, tenthers, and every other sort of “-er” you can think of (except “thinkers”). Obama is a Nazi, or a communist, or the antichrist, or the Hamburgler, or whatever.

My wife can’t stand it anymore, and is more inclined to change the channel to the new show about hoarders on A&E. But I always like to watch my friends in the liberal media take down the hypocrites, the liars, the ignorant. Besides, at first they all seemed harmless, a silly distraction, the easily-provoked getting riled up by an otherwise impotent minority party. But the more I consider what I’ve been hearing, the more I sense a more fundamental problem with an aspect of American culture, something dark.

To give you an idea, take a look at this foreboding interview with Frank Schaeffer, a former founding father of the Religious Right and now impassioned critic of wingnut zealotry.

Schaeffer calls the angry fanatics “beyond crazy,” a “fifth column of insanity,” particularly in their enmity toward Obama (the original subject of the interview), but I think that lets them off the hook. He notes that this pseudo-fundamentalist subculture is conditioned to “reject facts,” and I think that gets closer to the point. The rage and racism (more on that word in a bit) here is the result of a willful ignorance on the part of millions who know exactly what they’re doing. They’re not insane, they are opting out of reality.

Schaeffer also notes that the Republican Party, languishing in the political minority, is “enthralled to this subculture,” and this is evident in the unwillingness of the more reasonable members of the party to take a stand against the hate and stupidity, as well as in the more knuckle-dragging members who dive head first into the filth, hoping to ride a mosh pit of bigotry and fear into a fixed position of consolidated power.

Which leads me, as one might guess, to Rush Limbaugh. I don’t care to simply quote mine Limbaugh to prove some kind of point about what a blowhard he is—this is like explaining that fire is hot. Instead, I want to use a recent diatribe of his as an example of exactly the kind of thing Schaeffer is talking about.

If you read any liberal-leaning blog, you already know about Limbaugh’s stupid tantrum about the white student who was beat up on a school bus by black students, in which Limbaugh belched, “We need segregated buses.”

This is revolting and offensive enough on its own, but a full reading of the transcript shows that this isn’t really what Limbaugh was getting at per se—don’t worry, I’m not defending him, because it’s really worse than you think. Limbaugh said:

It’s Obama’s America, is it not? Obama’s America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, “Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,” and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white. Newsweek magazine told us this. We know that white students are destroying civility on buses, white students destroying civility in classrooms all over America, white congressmen destroying civility in the House of Representatives. We can redistribute students while we redistribute their parents’ wealth. We can redistribute everything, just return the white students to their rightful place, on their own bus with bars on the windows and armed guards—they’re racists, they get what they deserve! …

… I wonder if Obama’s going to come to the defense of the assailants like he did his friend Skip Gates up there at Harvard.

It’s that term “Obama’s America” that kept haunting me as I heard this. That Rush Limbaugh and those like him harbor racist feelings and resentments is not news. But what is striking about this serving of rhetorical vomit is how it attempts to make white racism against blacks acceptable again, but uses a perversion of the phraseology of identity politics and manufactured umbrage. The important message of Limbaugh’s monologue is not “let’s bring back segregated buses,” it’s really, “You see? Black people have always been the problem!” He feels the racists have had their point proved: In Obama’s America, white kids get beat up and white men get blamed for everything, while their wealth is stolen by blacks (and gays). Another way he might have put it: “We let the blacks have a shot at being in charge, and now your kids aren’t safe from black people.”

When Obama was elected, there was a lot of fuzzy talk about the beginning of the end of racism. But Limbaugh, Beck, and their ilk (and I specifically mean anyone in the Republican Party who will not totally renounce them), in what they are telling their stupid followers, are showing us the opposite—they’re trying to make the case that it’s okay to be racist again, because Obama is a Nazi/communist/black nationalist/foreigner/racist/Muslim/antichrist. You were right all along, these inexcusably abhorrent men tell their anti-intellectual swarms, so it’s okay to take this president down.

Frank Schaeffer said something else that is spot on, that we can’t “reorganize village life to suit the village idiot.” But we do have to wake the village up, assemble a legitimate town meeting, and make sure everyone knows that the village idiot has formed a posse, and it’s headed this way.

The Evolution of God: Brilliant and Maddening

Robert Wright, in his latest book The Evolution of God, promises up front that he will make a plausible case for the existence of some force or intention behind the universe that could be called “divinity,” and does so in the midst of making a different case altogether: that our notions of the illusory “one true god” (and Wright does call the idea of God an “illusion”) adapt over time to the circumstances of the people believing in him.

On the second argument, he succeeds brilliantly. Not so much in that this is a revelation (is it a surprise to anyone that religious notions change to fit the times and situations of the humans inventing them?), but in the fluid, accessible, and vivid way in which he makes his case and educates the reader. 90 percent or so of The Evolution of God is utterly engrossing and fascinating in this way.

On the first argument, however, he fails, and it leaves one utterly puzzled. He writes:

Maybe, in the end, a mercilessly scientific account of our predicament—such as the account that got me denounced from the pulpit of my mother’s church—is actually compatible with a truly religious worldview, and is part of the process that refines a religious worldview, moving it closer to truth.

It’s a valiant effort he makes, but not a coherent one.

Wright has a brilliant way of weaving together elements of history and constructing a guiding principle or theory to explain its dynamics. He did so inNonzero in regards to human interactions over time. Whether or not one thinks Wright reaches cogent conclusions in either book, it is hard to deny that he has taken his subject terribly seriously and constructed plausible and thought-provoking narratives in following history’s thread.

I don’t claim the religious or historical scholarship to be able to weigh his reconstruction of religious history for thoroughness or veracity, but I can say that at the very least he lends a fresh perspective to the evolution of religion that, if nothing else, is brought to life by his wit and passion for the subject. (Certainly worth further exploration is his comparison of financial analysts to shamans, people who show no evidence of genuine connection to an incomprehensible phenomenon — be it the stock market or the spirit world — and yet we imbue them with a kind of priestliness, assuming they possess knowledge that they likely do not.)

At the center of Wright’s examination of the evolution of religion is what he sees as religion’s expanding moral circle — as time goes on, religions and notions of God begin to accept a greater and greater share of the human species into the sphere of those we deem worthy of moral consideration. (He is careful to note, wisely I think, that gods were not originally conceived as moral arbiters at all, but merely as explanations for natural events and good and bad fortune.) There are fits and starts to be sure, big ones, and Wright does not hide them, but he posits that the overall trend is one of expanding and deepening tolerance.

That this occurs is difficult to argue with, but it immediately seems odd to lend this characterization to religion in particular, rather than seeing religion’s evolution as a byproduct of the wider culture’s evolution. Yes, the interpretations and dictates of various religious philosophies may be growing more tolerant and humanistic, but Wright fails to prove that this moral expansion is a product of the religion itself, and not vice versa (and truly, it is not always clear in what direction he wishes us to go). Does it not make more sense to say that as society becomes more diverse and sophisticated, and as disparate cultures are intermingling for the first time, that the accompanying religions are simply being adapted to that end? The religions aren’t making us more moral, our increasing and deepening sense of morality is being reflected in our religions (and Wright does not rule that out, either). One may reinforce the other, of course, and Wright doesn’t outright declare that religion’s moral growth is the only reason we don’t slaughter each other in the streets today (oh wait), but whatever his ultimate point, religion deserves less credit for our tolerance than Wright implicitly gives it.

This is all to say that Wright constructs a case through his narrative that religion changes with the times, and illustrates what forms it takes, but then seems to see this evolution as an innate property of religion; a guided human phenomenon that grows in moral scope over time (“there is a moral order out there—and it’s imposed on us.”). But were he not to proffer that conclusion, one would simply read his book as an excellent explanation of how human morality has changed and improved, independent of religion, and how religion then changes to suit.

But then we come to the maddening 10 percent of the book, in which Wright tries to take his assembled case about the evolution of religion and use it to prove that behind this evolution is some intentional force, some Logos, that is driving the change. The Abrahamic scriptures in particular “reveal the arrow of moral development built into human history.” The word “built” being key. Wright tells us again and again that there is some trove of evidence that at least suggests that a power “out there” is pushing human history in a particular direction, but fails to provide it, citing only the adaptations religion (an entirely human-borne phenomenon) has made over the millennia. Our developing and evolving notions of morality are not, to Wright, byproducts of increased human and societal sophistication, they are proof of something not unlike God. “The fact that there’s a moral order out there doesn’t mean there’s a God. On the other hand, it’s evidence in favor of the God hypothesis . . .”

But wait. Wright insists he is not stretching logic in his arguments, calling them “materialist” and that “no mystical force . . . has to enter the system to explain this, and there’s no need to look for one.” No need for one, but he puts it there anyway, which is unfortunate. In a response to Jerry Coyne’s review of his book (which I think is quite a bit too harsh on Wright), he reminds us:

I don’t argue that religious belief is a pre-requisite for this moral progress; atheists are presumably just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers. The values system in question—religious or secular—is a kind of “neutral medium” through which underlying social dynamics find their moral manifestation.

This is true, and Wright’s critics often unfairly attack him for supposedly trying to imply that we should all start believing in the unprovable in order to join in with Wright’s “moral axis.” But if anything, Wright sees any underlying divinity to the universe as, well, universal, and more importantly, unavoidable. Atheists would not be able to resist the moral arc of history even if we wanted to (and I, for one, wouldn’t, if it existed, which it doesn’t).

Perhaps most intellectually offensive is Wr

ight’s comparison of people’s belief in a cosmic superbeing with scientists’ understanding of electrons. Electrons can’t be “seen” in the usual sense, but we see evidence of their existence in other ways. So it is with divinity, says Wright. We can’t look at God in the face, but one can say that we see evidence of his/its presence.

Only we don’t. Or if we do, Wright hasn’t come close to proving it. Electrons, on the other hand, are known to exist through decades of rigorous study and experimentation by thousands upon thousands of scientists in all fields of study. The “divine” is a foggy notion that doesn’t have much of a definition, the evidence for which being, at best, extremely suspect, subjective, and remote.

And another important distinction: Were the scientific community to discover it was wrong all along about electrons, so be it. Science would accept its new understanding and go from there. Those who are told that there is no proof for a cosmic consciousness are rarely so open to disproof. I suspect the same is true for Wright, who has glommed onto his idea of a mystical force behind the universe without any kind of reasonable foundation. It’s a shame, because it taints what is on the whole a wonderful book. Had he kept his exploration to the “facts on the ground,” and wholly derived his conclusions from those foundations, The Evolution of God would be an unabashed triumph.

But, oh, that 10 percent. Get a hold of the book, read it, feast on it, enjoy it, and then get ready to be taken a bit off the rails. Though his quasi-deism is disappointing, the book is still very much worth the ride.

Disbelieving Outside the Lines

Ross Douthat writes in defense of the Yahweh concept, reminding we stuffy atheists that it’s not as silly as Russell’s teapot assumes:

This analogy – like its modern descendant, the Flying Spaghetti Monster – makes a great deal of sense if you believe that the idea of God is an absurdity dreamed up by crafty clerics in darkest antiquity and subsequently imposed on the human mind by force and fear, and that it only survives for want of brave souls willing to note how inherently absurd the whole thing is.

I’m fairly certain that atheists’ diselief in God is not contingent upon the assumption of some conspiracy of Jesus Christ Superstar-type priests looking to fool the drooling masses with a prefab script. It is the lack of any evidence that is the beginning and end of the story.

Douthat doesn’t discount atheism entirely, but if you don’t disbelieve within his parameters, you’re probably just a weirdo (emphasis mine):

But it is one thing to disbelieve in God; it is quite another to never feel a twinge of doubt about one’s own disbelief. And just as the Christian who has never entertained doubts about his faith probably hasn’t thought hard enough about the matter, the atheist who perceives the Christian God and the flying spaghetti monster as equally ridiculous hypotheses really needs to get out more often.

Ouch! But truly, the best reason I can think of that one would not see the two ideas as equally absurd is that the concept of God is either incredibly vague or incredibly anthropomorphic; that is to say, fuzzy yet familiar enough not to jump out in our own minds as patently nutty. Orbital teapots and sentient pasta, not so much. But there is equal evidence for all of these things: none.

Elizabeth Dole and the GOP Tell Me to Go to Hell

My day was flat out ruined by a political ad.

I’m very passionate about politics to begin with, but usually if a political ad upsets me it’s in the direction of worry (”this is gonna kill us!”) or rage (”that’s a filthy lie!”). But this ad ruined my day because it made me feel a certain emotion in a way I don’t think I had before.


People throw that term around pretty loosely in politics these days. If I were to summarize the 2008 presidential election, I don’t think I’d be too far off if I described it as a competition to see which campaign could take more “offense” at the other.

“That was sexist! How dare you?”

“You accused me of racism! That’s the race card! How dare you?”


But the offense I’m talking about is the kind that really inflames the kind of anger that is one of the ingredients for cohesion in (I cringe at this term) identity politics. This offense is not the false umbrage of Geraldine Ferraro or Carly Fiorina, but the kind that emerges when a statement is made that explicitly says that one group of people is not welcome in America, that associating with them is an example of a flaw in one’s character. Of course, I’m not talking about associations with people who are legitimately questionable (had Barack Obama actually been a member of the Weather Underground, for example, I could see people having reservations). I’m talking about a group of Americans that is vilified even though they are law-abiding, decent, thoughtful citizens.

We’re familiar with this kind of bigotry in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. In all cases, it is obviously unacceptable, and more to the point, an example of willful ignorance and/or maleficence on the part of the person advocating for exclusion. What we never talk about, though, is prejudice against people with no religion.

Having made some minor rumblings about this a couple of months ago, the reelection campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina along with the National Republican Senatorial Committee have released ads on TV and the web attacking Democratic challenger Kay Hagan for the most unforgivable of sins: consorting with atheists.

Here is the Dole campaign’s ad. Watch and then keep reading below.

Kay Hagan is upset mainly because the ad implies that she is an atheist, which she certainly is not, and is right to be upset at this misrepresentation. I am upset because the ad implies that because I am an atheist, I am someone who no self-respecting public figure should ever come in contact with. In other words, as then-candidate George H.W. Bush said in 1987, “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”

In my stomach-sickening anger after seeing this ad (and then later the NRSC’s web ad which displays the word “Godless” in smeary, blood-red letters), I wondered why we see so little of this kind of attack, accusing one’s opponent of being an atheist (of course, Obama is being compared to Karl “Religion-is-the-Opiate-of-the-Masses” Marx). Of course, the answer is that there are essentially no atheists in public life. Why is that? The unspoken religious test that disqualifies all atheists from serving in public office (unspoken until, of course, these ads).

There are two exceptions, of course, that I know of. Rep. Pete Stark of California is a non-believing Unitarian, and there is a Nebraska state legislator named Ernie Chambers who is also an atheist (and attempted to sue God, who did not show up for his court date despite calls of “come out, come out, wherever you are”). I know nothing about local Nebraska politics, so I have to chalk Mr. Chambers’ election up to a quirk of the region, and Rep. Stark has been serving in Congress for 18 terms, and only revealed his godlessness to his very liberal constituency last year.

The point is that it’s nearly impossible to accuse public figures of atheism if atheists are not allowed out in public.

Of course, there remains bigotry toward women, racial minorities, homosexuals, and people of faith. In these cases, however, it is now the mainstream position that this kind of prejudice is not okay, and any manifestation of this bigotry must be done covertly, with code, and hints, and innuendo. For atheists, however, a group differentiated only in their utilization of reason over superstition, are not allowed within this political force field. The Dole campaign and the Republican Party have made it clear that it is still okay to express open bigotry and hate toward atheists.

Or is it? These ads are relatively new, and Dole and the Senate Republicans are desperate. Perhaps there is still time for wiser voices in our political discourse to call this what it is: baseless discrimination and unwarranted prejudice.

I have little hope, but I have some. When Mitt Romney gave his semi-famous “religion speech” during the Republican primaries, he made two notable statements: “Any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty has a friend and ally in me,” and most notably, made the starkly definitive statement, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Much to my surprise, major media figures such as Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos pressed Romney and his campaign as to whether Romney meant to explicitly exclude atheists from “freedom,” citizenship, or less importantly, his friendship. Romney, notably, walked his words back, and allowed a begrudging place for atheists in America. Thanks, Mitt.

But as of now, the ire against Dole and her pals is all focused on misrepresenting Hagan’s religion, with little about how the ads spit on nonreligious Americans, treat them like criminals, and declare them unacceptable in American society.

So I’m experiencing a small taste of offense in the way that I expect many other oppressed groups have experienced it. Of course, no one is locking me up, telling me where I can drink from a fountain, where I can sit on a bus, or keeping me from voting. But now I am more certain than ever that if many people had their way, they would.