23 October 2006

Four Books that would be good to read.

These past few months have been terribly good to my brain. I have read four books that either take on faith directly or explain it in terms of biological, psychological, and cultural processes. The first of these I read in Arizona. Its by that most brilliant philosopher Daniel Dennet, and it was called "Breaking the Spell." The spell is, of course the spell of religion. The subtitle of the book, "Religion as a Natural Phenomenon," lays out the purpose of the book. That point is to frame discussions about religion as a non-supernatural product of human psychology. This is a vastly stimulating book, that addresses many current hypotheses about origins of our religions.
The other three books on the subject are easily the most erudite, cutting, and genuinely forthright on the nature of religion I have ever read. Two are by the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris. The third is by the Britain's very gifted popularizer of biology, and its unifying theory in particular, Richard Dawkins.
Harris' book "End of Faith" is about the dangers of religious faith in our modern world.
"We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martydom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation, or in any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia-because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that these developments mark the terminal phase of our credulity. Words like "God" and "Allah" must go the way of "Apollo" and "Baal," or they will unmake our world."
"Nothing that a Christian and a Muslim can say to each other will render their beliefs mutually vulnerable to discourse, because the very tenets of their faith have immunized them to the power of conversation. Believing strongly, without evidence, they kicked themselves loose of the world."
-Sam Harris, "The End of Faith."
Harris' book, "The End of Faith," is a penetrating critique, often very hard edged, of the respect we accord religious belief. That is to say, when engaged in a talk about some issue, abortion say, or stem cell research, when a person trots out some faith based reasoning we can't really challenge it. Once they say, 'Well its a faith issue,' it would be terribly impolite to press further. Rubbish. As Harris notes, "either there are good reasons for believing what we believer or there aren't." And deferring to one's faith is a tacit admission that there really aren't good reasons for your position.
In his second book, "Letter to a Christian Nation," Harris deals specifically with the dogmas of U.S. Christianity. His inspiration for this little 96 page book were letters he received from his most ardent Christian critics. He demolishes the notion that you find good moral instruction from the good book. He notes the Bible's deeply violent, archaic, barbaric and plainly confusing morality. One of his most damning critiques involves the issue of slavery. "God clearly expects us to keep slaves." Both old and new testaments agree.
Whoops!
Richard Dawkins' provocatively titled, "The God Delusion," is a feisty, witty, and always passionate debunking of religious dogmas. It is a tale told in the style of deeply reasoned argument. In the first part he lays down the ground rules of his attack, then he reviews the God Hypotheses in all its forms, after which he fleshes out the arguments for God's existence, while along the way debunking them rather handily. Some of them were always quite absurd.
Then, while accepting that at the moment there is no way yet to disprove the existence of some divine being completely (There is no way to disprove the existence of Odin or Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster either) the probabilities for or against said being aren't likely to be equal. God is a wildly improbable character, and Dawkins really establishes why it such a being isn't terribly likely to exist. This section is nicely done.
The last section of his book deals with likely explanations for the roots of religion, i.e. its evolutionary history. This is different than the approach Dennet takes in "Breaking the Spell." I'm inclined to agree with Dawkins on this but clearly more research needs to be done. These chapters also deal with the roots of our morality, and lay out rather clearly why we don't now, and likely never really have gotten our morals from the bible. This is fascinating stuff. And I think really ought to be read by anyone interested in that weird, often contradictory body of thought we call religion.
After reading these books, or before, you may be inclined to check out at least two of their web-sites.
www.samharris.org and
www.richarddawkins.net
You will find plenty to watch and hear and read.

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