The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers

Read: 16 December, 2013

Given the title, I’d hoped that The Happy Atheist would be more about Atheism (something like Raising Freethinkers for adults, perhaps). Unfortunately, it was more in line with The God Delusion and God Is Not Great. The book is, for the most part, an attack on religion and religious thinking.

Of course, it’s PZ Myers, so it was still a lot of fun to read. The book reads a lot like Myers’s blog, Pharyngula. There’s no real structure, just a thought per post-length chapter. There were some very interesting ones, such as his classic “Courtier’s Reply.”

While many of the chapters were fairly standard fair for atheist writing about religion, there were some real gems. “The Proper Reverence Due Those Who Have Gone Before” and “Niobrara” were particularly wonderful. Had the whole book been more along those lines, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

If you enjoyed The God Delusion, you will probably enjoy this. PZ Myers has an entertaining writing style and is always thought-provoking. If you’ve been there and would rather have a bit more meat, it may be worthwhile waiting for something else.

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Does God Hate Women? by Ophelia Benson & Jeremy Stangroom

Read: 13 September, 2013

I got to meet and see Ophelia Benson speak at Eschaton2012 and I follow her blog occasionally (although her post frequency is way too high for my poor, beleaguered schedule to handle). When I do get to read her writings, I quite enjoy them, and I thought her talk at the conference was great. Thankfully, most of the speeches have been uploaded to YouTube, so you can see her speak:

So after the conference and seeing how awesome she was in person, I decided that I should bite the bullet and read one of her books. Unfortunately, my local library didn’t carry any, but fortunately I have friends! After mentioning on Facebook how upset I was by the gap in the library’s collection, a friend very kindly brought over Does God Hate Women? Of course, I immediately set about putting it down under a pile of stuff and forgetting about it. (Friends, thankfully, don’t generally charge fines.)

I’ve been losing so much desk real estate to notes and scribbles and books and flyers and all sorts of other bits and bobs that I decided to tidy my desk today. In the process, I rediscovered the book and then remembered that I am actually going to see the loaner tomorrow! This prompted a mad rush to read the entire book so that I could return it and, hopefully, save my relationship with that friend.

It’s a shame, though, because the book is absolutely packed. It’s very short and easily read in a day, but that kind of pace hardly does it justice.

The authors provide a number of examples where religious laws or efforts to protect religions have harmed people – particularly women. Woven throughout these examples are the authors’ musings about human rights, multiculturalism, Female Genital Mutilation, and more.

While I didn’t feel that the book was particularly organized, it was powerful. And frightening. And rather depressing.

And, while surely offensive to most religious people who might attempt to give it a read (the authors certainly don’t try to soften any punches), I feel – at least after such a quick read – that they adequately defended all of their assertions.

The books does focus a good deal of its efforts on Islam, though there is also some discussion of Judaism, Evangelical Christianity, the FLDS church, and the Roman Catholic Church. I realize the point of this – that the authors were going after the most horrific examples of religiously-motivated attacks on women (which seem to be concentrated, at least at present, in Muslim-dominated areas of the world), but I think that some treatment of the more mundane – and, therefore, familiar – ways in which religion is used to defend gender inequality would have been interesting. As it was, the authors clearly felt that they needed to spend an entire chapter explaining that criticism of Islam (or forms of it) is not the same thing as islamophobia or racism.

I’d recommend this book to people who are interested in gender issues, although religious readers should prepare themselves emotionally and go in with an open mind. I would also recommend this more generally to anyone interested in the interplay and overlap between religion, culture, and laws. However, I would recommend buying – rather than borrowing – this book because it is a book that requires highlighting. It is full of fantastic quotable passages and factoids that need remembering, and I definitely felt at a disadvantage in not being able to to mark it up.

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God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens

Read: 27 April, 2010

“God should be flattered: unlike most of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him like an adult.”

The above quote is from the New York Times Book Review and appears on the cover of my edition. I find it to be an excellent summary of the book, and of Hitchens’s work in general. He treats God like any other human adult, holding him responsible for the actions attributed to him, and not letting God’s celebrity status get in the way of justice.

My complaint of this book is the same as my complaint of pre-sober Hitchens in general. He has a lot of zingers and truly quotable lines, but they’re buried under a meandering and unstructured argumentation. The book is divided into chapters, but there’s no build-up or progression. It’s more like Hitchens merely writes in the train of thought and then publishes, without regard for editing.

I also didn’t like the lack of notation. He does have end-notes, but they aren’t marked in the text and mostly only provide citations for the passages he quotes. Any “facts” that he writes aren’t sourced, so it’s often difficult to check their veracity. For example, on page 110 of my edition, he write: “One recalls a governor of Texas who, asked if the Bible should also be taught in Spanish, replied that ‘if English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.'” Unfortunately, no details are provided about this incident that might help the interested look it up. No name, no year, nothing except the location. It seems plausible that it’s true, but I have no way of verifying it.

I’m being harsh on the book, but I did enjoy it. Hitchens is an excellent writer – funny, interesting, and he certainly keeps the pace moving. So this is a fine book to read while travelling or sitting by the pool. What it isn’t is a resource or an argument. It’s the fluff of the atheist library.

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Godless by Dan Barker

Read: 5 March, 2011

Godless has been on my reading list for a very long time, but I somehow never got around to it. Finally, bored with a long string of novels and wanting to read something a bit different, I took it out of the library.

I got about a quarter of the way through before I realized that I had to own a copy – a copy I could mark up and keep forever and ever and ever (and possibly hug, pet, and name George). Yes, the book is that good. So I ordered a copy and then started back at page one, highlighter in hand.

The book is part autobiography and part argument in favour of Atheism (or, mostly, against Christianity), written by a former Evangelical preacher. It’s divided into four parts: part one describes Barker’s life as a Christian and part four describes his life as an Atheist, with the two middle chunks giving his arguments for transitioning from one to the other. It’s at once a deeply personal novel, the story of one man’s deconversion and his experiences, while at the same time serving the same general anti-theist and pro-atheist purpose as other Gnu Atheist books.

Richard Dawkins wrote the forward to the book, which was something of a shame. As much as I loved The God Delusion, Dawkins was never really a Christian – at least not in the same way that Barker was – and his perspective is just too different. As a result, he came at religion hard in his four allotted pages. He did this in his general anger towards the “tyrant,” filled with justified indignity, but lacking the personal experience and scriptural knowledge that Barker would follow with. I found that it didn’t strike the right chord for the book, and it really didn’t contribute anything.

As I said earlier, Part One describes life as an Evangelical (and the deconversion experience that follows). In this section, Barker describes his beliefs as a Christian, trying to recapture and convey the feelings and ideas from the awkward position of now finding them ridiculous. This awkwardness actually made the section an even more enjoyable read, as Barker peppers his descriptions of his Christian life with hilarious (although at times rather sad) commentary.

Part Two was a weak point in the book for me. Barker tackled some of the more common arguments for God put forward by theologians (the ontological argument, Pascal’s Wager, etc). Unfortunately, this has the effect of taking these arguments seriously – something that no one over the age of about four should be doing (I mean, really: “We can imagine a god, therefore God exists”? “Everything requires a cause, therefore there must be an uncaused first cause”? Good grief!). I also found that some of Barker’s counter-arguments didn’t make much sense to me, lacking in some logical steps. That being said, I fully admit to the possibility that the arguments on both sides might simply be over my head.

This section did include a chapter, entitled “Dear Theologian” which was written as a first-person letter from God to theologians. While it suffered from the same defects as the rest of Part Two, I did find the approach to be rather unique and interesting in its playfulness. It was certainly a novel way to present some of the common Atheist complaints!

Part Three focused on Christianity, and this is where Barker really shines as a contribution to the Atheist movement! This whole section was incredibly quote-heavy, as Barker drew from his in-depth knowledge of the Bible to offer up contradictions, moral issues, etc. It was so much more grounded and scripture-based than what I’ve read from other Atheists and I managed to run straight through two highlighters.

And finally, Part Four returns to Barker’s personal experiences as he describes life as an Atheist. This section was quite a bit less interesting than Part One, lacking the same self-deprecating humour. Much of it read like a laundry list of the Freedom From Religion Foundation‘s accomplishments, which I I found rather tiresome. The chapter “Life and Death Matters” returned to some much more interesting philosophizing, although I have to say that, being pregnant, I could have done without his story about Annie Laurie Gaylor suffering from eclampsia.

I’ve been pretty hard on Godless, and there were certainly large portions that I ended up skimming, but the book as a whole is well worth the read! I’ve said this a couple times now, but I found it so much more targeted than other Atheist books I’ve read – Barker is writing from a position of insider knowledge of Christianity, and he’s coming in armed with quotes. It felt as though he already knew all the objections, and he could address them preemptively. Authors like Dawkins and Harris have been great from a high-level, general criticism of religion perspective, but Barker is far more of an authority on Christianity. I found this incredibly valuable and interesting.

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The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Read: 4 April, 2010

After years of being told that I absolutely had to read The End of Faith and seeing Harris’s TED presentation on universal morality, I finally took the plunge and bought a copy.

The book is divided into two distinct parts: the first is what doesn’t work, and the second is what Harris believes will work. What doesn’t work is, of course, religion. This part reads like must other Atheist books that have come out in recent years. Harris devotes a portion to each major religion, a little different than some books, perhaps, in that he addresses the Eastern religions as well. Of course, his focus is on the two major troublemakers of recent year, Christianity and Islam. The chapter on Islam includes four pages of Quranic quotes that are racist, anti-tolerance, anti-apostate, xenophobic, etc. That alone makes this book a valuable addition to a debater’s bookshelf!

The second portion deals with spirituality, and a way to integrate spirituality with Atheism. Harris is a proponent of meditation. Unfortunately, many of his assumptions regarding the workings of the brain run contrary to what I’ve learned, some making rather strange leaps of logic and some being downright silly. Harris seems to lose his credulity in his search for “something more.” That being said, I can appreciate what he’s trying to do even if I don’t agree with him (or think he’s gone loony).

He also has the nasty habit of dropping bombs without any explanation. He’s presumably writing for a sceptical audience, so it seems strange that he wouldn’t devote a bit more time to explaining the concepts that would set off sceptical alarm bells. For example, he says that “there also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science” (p. 41). This particular bomb is dropped without examples or explanation, just a list of book titles in the end notes (obscure books that neither my library nor my university has ever heard of).

There were some historical inaccuracies that bugged me. For example, he refers to Isis as “the goddess of fertility, [who] sports an impressive pair of cow horns.” Well, I’ve never seen Isis with cow horns. Her symbol was a throne with an egg on top. The cow horns belonged to Hathor. These sorts of little details really pulled me out of the book and made me wonder how much else he may have gotten wrong.

Despite some carelessness and strange choices, it’s a worthwhile read. I do appreciate that he attempts to ‘fill the gap’ after dismantling religion, and I would like to see more of this in the mainstream Atheist discourse. I simply don’t see his replacement as being any more rational than that which he seeks to replace.

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His Dark Materials #3: The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Read: 27 December, 2008

Lyra has definitely become more passive since Will entered the story. It’s a shame. I had really enjoyed having a strong female main character in book 1. Still, though, there’s no lack of strong female characters overall and the story was amazing. The pace throughout the series has been just right to captivate my attention while still presenting many interesting ideas.

The ending worried me. For the longest time, it seemed to be going in the direction of the standard “and then all the loose ends were neatly wrapped up and the children who fell in love would live happily ever after together!” But then the story veered off into a completely satisfying, albeit sad, ending. I was so relieved!

I’ve really enjoyed this series. It can be a little violent at times, which I do understand some people having issues with. But it’s a brilliant story that doesn’t treat its young adults like idiots – but rather challenges its readership with “cosmic” ideas. I will definitely be recommending the series.

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His Dark Materials #2: The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Read: 16 December, 2008

Awesome book – a complete page-turner. My only issue would be that Lyra seems much more passive than she did in The Golden Compass. She seems to just follow Will around rather than acting for herself. I can understand the idea that she is sacrificing her own desires to help Will accomplish his destiny, but it just seemed a shame to have the female character acting in such a way to a male character.

Reading some of the reviews on Shelfari, I have to agree that this book was more of a page-turner than the first one, but had less substance. Certainly, the action moved along quite quickly and a great deal of information was given out about the subtle knife and the Authority, but I guess that because we already know most of the characters, less time was needed to establish them. The result was a more plot-driven book than the first had been.

Also, Pullman used variations of the word “wary” far too much in the first dozen or so pages. Other than that, it was a fabulous book and I can’t wait to read the third instalment!

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His Dark Materials #1: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Read: 3 August, 2008

Absolutely fantastic book! While I do think it would be fabulous for children to read (I don’t think it would be appropriate for anyone younger than 10, though), it has more than enough content for adults as well. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I found it more complex and “intellectual” (quotes used because I hate that word) than most grown-up books I’ve read. And now for a lengthy list of some of the things I especially liked:

Lyra feels like a real kid. I’ve read many kids’ books where we are told that the main character is a tomboy and so forth, but then the character never acts like that once the introduction of the story is over with. Lyra, on the other hand, wants to play and be a child throughout the story. She also thinks like a child. While most stories with children will pay some lip service to the idea of childhood, Lyra actually feels genuine. She is also afraid, she doubts herself, she moans and wishes that it could all be happening to someone else instead. She has real character flaws, not just insignificant details tacked on as an afterthought to make the main character seem like less of a super-human.

That level of characterization doesn’t end with the main character. The other important characters were ambiguous. They had motives of their own that went far beyond “I’m, like, totally evil! MUAHAHA!” Right from the beginning, we think the master of Jordan College is evil because he’s trying to poison Lord Asriel only to find out a few pages later that he was only doing so because he was trying to protect Lyra. This continues on throughout the story so that the characters feel real and can never really be pegged as either “good” or “evil.”

Often, when I read children’s novels, there will be bits that make me uncomfortable. A perfect example that comes from a grown-up novel is Lucky You by Carl Hiaason. The main characters are obviously supposed to be Good and they do their whole speech about how murder is wrong, then they leave the main Evil character to die on the island without any guilt whatsoever. Had an Evil character done something like that, it would be thought of as horrible – but because a Good character did it, it’s no big deal. These sorts of things make me feel very uncomfortable when found in any novel, but most especially in a kid’s book. I hate the thought of exposing my own hypothetical children to that sort of corrupt value system. The Golden Compass had no such moments. There were times when Lyra had to do things that, under ordinary circumstances, I would consider bad, but she always feels guilt about them. They are always acknowledged as being bad, though necessary. At no point did this novel offend my personal morality, and that’s saying a whole lot.

I also liked all the positive lessons of the story – the triumph of Iorek among the bears tells kids that it’s better to be yourself than to weaken yourself trying to be something else; Lyra is afraid, but she masters herself and perseveres anyway, showing kids that it’s okay and legitimate to feel afraid, but that they, too, can master their fears. Lyra is also a very active protagonist. She initiates much of the plot in a way that is woefully rare for characters, female ones especially.

And finally, Pullman writes with a perfect balance of ideas and action, allowing me to enjoy my reading of the book immensely (I must say, I found myself holding my breath several times while reading) while also giving me plenty to think about once I put the book down. This is an all-over fantastic book that I can’t possibly praise enough. I’ve now ordered the next two books in the series and here’s hoping they come soon!

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The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Read: 26 July, 2008

Overall, I loved this book. Dawkins is a wonderful writer and I think I would have enjoyed his style regardless of the subject matter. The only major flaw that irked me was his habit of veering off into tangents, but even this was made bare-able by not only his writing style, but also by the fact that most of his tangents were just plain interesting. Dawkins makes his case even stronger, in my opinion, by fulling admitting to and even going out of his way to point out the limits of his own personal knowledge. At several times during the book, he will say that he suspects one thing but does not know for certain, showing an inquisitive and flexible mind, both humble and confident. It’s a refreshing break from the average writer who seems all too sure of her/his omniscience.

With all that out of the way, I’d like to address a couple of issues with the book. The first is with Chapter Four or “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” I found the whole chapter to be a disappointment. Dawkins takes the question of “if there isn’t a god, how did everything fall into place so perfectly to produce us?” and tries to answer it with science. This points him in an awkward and unnecessarily defensive position because the question itself is not a legitimate one (something he never once says outright). It’s like asking “how did my parents know to have sex at just the perfect time to conceive me?” It assumes that we are an end result, a goal that the universe has been working towards – rather than the more accurate assumption that the universe is merely ambling along in one of billions (to pick an unrealistically small number) of possible ways and we just happen to be a bi-product (one of many possibilities) that happened to emerge. There is nothing special about the production of us, whether as individuals or as a species.

Another quibble I had with the book is that Dawkins repeats multiple times that natural selection gets rid of negatives and keeps positives, which is just sloppy. What about the vast majority of mutations, which are just neutral? Or mutations that have both positive and negative expressions?I understand the need for brevity and keeping things simple, but this is a major point and something that a lot of Dawkins’s opposition can’t seem to grasp.

And the final detail that I took issue with is his statement that “[monogamy] is what we expect, and it is what we set out to achieve.” Is it? Maybe he’s right, I don’t know. Maybe monogamy really is the default. But that’s not what even the quickest glance around the diversity of human societies in the world today will tell me. Many societies involve one man and several women, some even involve one woman and several men. If monogamy truly is the natural default, why isn’t this expression universal? Like I said, maybe he’s right – but because his statement was counter-intuitive, the existence of polygamous societies should have been addressed.

With all that said, this was a fabulous book and I am very glad that I’ve read it. It ought to have stayed on topic a little better, but that’s okay. There were no parts of the book that I felt weren’t worth reading and that’s more than I can say for most books.

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