Undergroundnetwork


The Crusade of the Nonbelievers by underground

As the onslaught of atheist book releases continues, I will attempt to briefly review those books that I have tackled in my pursuit of knowing exactly what I do believe as an atheist.

It was an Australian comedian who alerted me to my own ignorance. In the hilarious TV series “John Safran vs God“, John goes around taking the piss out of various religions, all in a fairly good-natured manner. He highlights the absurdity of some faiths and the hypocrisy of others. Great viewing for people of all faiths and no faith. After years of being out of bounds, religions finally got the satirical critique they deserve. Atheism did not get off easy though either. In one stinging segment, he singled out atheists for their arrogance, pointing out that most atheists happily ridicule fantastical creation myths, but have no grasp of their own belief in the beginning of the universe or man. Could they describe the Big Bang theory or evolution?

At the time I was a convinced atheist, but although I knew what I did not believe in and why, I had little to no idea what I did believe in. A dozen books later, I think I might be a little a closer to knowing what I believe.

Perhaps one reason why people opt to believe in a god is because it is easy. There is a book and in it you find the answer to all questions about life. You can congregate with other believers and have someone tell you what to believe. If you can successfully ignore the outside world, you will have no reason to feel insecure ever again. You do not need a degree to understand the belief system you just need blind faith. You just follow what you’re told. You just accept that “the bible says so” and that will suffice as a response to any inquisitive arguments from hell-bound heathens.

Atheism on the other hand has no such security. The science that supports the universe not needing a god is complex and inaccessible. You will more than likely require a degree to understand it.

Don’t let that put you off. Just because you don’t understand it, does not make it untrue. And don’t be put off trying to understand it.

Fortunately many authors have come to our aid, to try and explain the science that supports a god-less universe and also propose how atheism is as moral as theism, if not more. Which is helpful, when often atheists are portrayed as unethical. (See Monopoly of morality)

Some of these books I read along time ago, so unfortunately cannot recall my impression upon finishing, or particular passages that struck me as particularly brilliant. Ratings are incredibly subjective and are a guide for the books worth for readers with little science or philosophy background who want to understand the debate. I acknowledge that some books reviewed are not intended for beginners, however they are the books I have read on the topic. Let us start with most well known.

Richard Dawkins has fast become one of the most despised men on earth. Arguable it is because he is so brilliant. The fact that he is unapologetically anti-religion may also fuel his loath-ability. He has written dozen’s of books, including the breakthrough The Selfish Gene and the Canterbury Tales inspired history of the human species, The Ancestor’s tale. (Both of which sit on my shelf awaiting the conclusion of my journalism degree!)

It is his book The God Delusion that has stirred the most rage from theists, and not just for the title. Like the title says, Dawkins argues that religion is a delusion and provides little to society, as it distorts science, corrupts politics, pollutes morals, well screws everything up!

As a scientist, Dawkins is capably explains why science and religion do not gel. Most things that religion used to have a monopoly over as explanatory tool can now be dealt with using science. And regarding those things that science is still working on, Dawkins argues that filling these gaps with god is both arrogant and ignorant.

Although I enjoyed the way he dealt with the scientific flaws of intelligent design, which he smashed, it is Dawkins dissection of theist arguments that I reveled in. I won’t give them all away; you’ll have to read Dawkins witty prose to discover them for yourself. Dawkins is also at his best when he deals with example of scripture justifying immoral acts, such as rape, genocide or murder. Theists can block their ears to science but they cannot reject their own doctrine. Well they do or they says it is metaphoric, but there are some examples that can only be taken literally.

Some arguments may seem to some a stretch and perhaps require elaboration, but most of his arguments seem sound to me and worthy of consideration. Particular impressed with the chapter on morals, which addresses many misconceptions and lies.

What I took away from the book: The idea of god as a gap filler. Just because there is a gap in our knowledge doesn’t mean we will never know. Inserting god as the answer is lazy, and certainly not science.

Rating 10/10

The next biggest title is Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great. A lot of what is in here is covered in God Delusion, so I have a hard time distinguishing between the two. That is not to say that you don’t need to read it if you’ve read Dawkins, because Hitchens is a brilliant writer.

I really enjoyed this book. Perhaps because it has less of the science I don’t understand, and more of the philosophical arguments I enjoy. Like Dawkins, Hitchens argues that “religion poisons everything” and after this book you may likely agree. The book is full of some brilliant humour, which is reflected in some of the fantastic chapter titles, for example, why heaven hates ham and Religion kills.

Like Dawkins, Hitchens does a great job at using religion against itself, by showing how scripture does not reflect the illusions that organised religions like to portray. Hitchens shows how despite their insistence, God is neither loving, forgiving, peace or fair. Begs the question, why would one worship god?

What I took away from the book: Apart from a new desire to read everything that has Hitchens name on it, I like how he discredits all religions, western and eastern, throughout the ages of history, liberal and fundamentalist, and proposes that only be discarding the lot, does our species have a future.

Rating 9/10

Sam Harris had great success in the states with Letter to a Christian Nation and also in his controversial (aren’t they all!) The End of Faith. Again this one covers much the much the same material as Dawkins and Hitchens, although he focuses on the threat that religion poses, and is more anti-theist, than pro-atheist. Then again the other two fall in the category too, which perhaps has a lot to do with what sells books.

I’m not too sure about others but I felt like Harris was trying to out-angry the other atheist academics and End of faith seems a bit sensationalist. He basically argues that no religious person, particular Muslims, can be liberal, if they follow their scriptures they will want to kill all unbelievers. Perhaps he is right. Their scripture do command some awful things, and we should bear that in mind. But not all religious people follow their religion ‘to the book’, so thankfully we are still alive! This has more to do with the advance of liberalism and secularism than religion. I don’t think claiming that all religious people are going to kill you is the best way to end religion. It’s a good way to spark violent conflict though.

I suppose I’m being harsh on Harris, although I did enjoy his book, and got a lot from it. Again, I like using scripture against the religious. I just struggle with the intolerance. Perhaps one cannot tolerate someone who wants them dead. It’s a fair argument.

What I took away from this book: Paranoia. But arguably a rational paranoia. Maybe I just don’t want to think about it. Harris is most likely right!

Rating: 7/10

Perhaps the ideal place to start ones search for the meaning of atheism is The Portable Atheist. In this collection of atheist, agnostic and even deist writers, one finds a huge array of arguments and ideas. And there are some big name contributors. Too many to mention, so I will go through my favourites.

The book goes in a chronological order, starting with Lucretius, Omar Khayyam, Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza. Although I had a hard time reading the old styled language, there were some interesting ideas. David Hume’s Natural History of Religion of Miracles is brilliant, although again, it requires some patience and tenacity to read. A segment from James Stuart Mill’s Autobiography is included which makes for interesting reading, and Karl Marx is typically difficult to read (something about proletariats). Mary Ann Evans or George Elliot as she was known rips into evangelicals, Darwin concedes his lack of faith and Leslie Stephen defends agnostics. Anatole France takes the piss out of miracles and Mark Twain takes time out to delve into more serious writing and highlights the fallacies of religion. Joseph Conrad explains his distrust of the superstitious, Thomas Hardy grieves his loss of faith and Emma Goldman provides the Philosophy of atheism. H.P. Lovecraft ridiculous religion as “childish” in a letter to a friend, Carl van Doren debunks the notion that atheists are without ethics and H.L. Mencken provides a touching memorial service for all histories dead gods. Sigmund Freud was a difficult read, but worthwhile nonetheless, and selected quotes from Albert Einstein left his lack of faith in no dispute (hands of theists!) A tract from George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter is included, as is religious man (weird, I know) John Betjeman and secularist Chapman Cohen writes on monism and religion.

That brings us to Bertrand Russell’s an outline of intellectual rubbish. I had not read Russell before this so was not prepared for the eloquent prose, the sharp wit, and the irrefutable genius of his arguments. I would recommend this book just for this essay.

Philip Larkin provides two poems, Aubade and Church going, Martin Gardner takes the myths of the wandering Jew and the second coming to task, and Carl Sagan links religion to primitive fears and rips into theology and religious experiences. A scene from John Updike’s novel Roger’s version is included, J.L. Mackie argues against Kung and the existence of god, and Shermer’s brilliant scientific creation story (from Why Darwin matters which I review below) mocks genesis. A.Y Ayer refutes claims he did not see the afterlife following a near death experiences, Daniel Dennett thanks ‘goodness’ not god, and former evangelist Charles Templeton fairwells his former friend Billy Graham. Of course Dawkins is included with some of his brilliance, Victor Stenger argues there is certainly is no god, and Dennett returns with a definition of religion. Elizabeth Anderson argues against the inherent morality of theism, Penn Jillette declares there is no god, Ian McEwan considers the end of the world and Nobel prize winning physician Steven Weinberg weighs in on the debate. Salman Rushdie writes a letter to the world’s 6 billionth citizen, Ibn Warraq smashes the crap out of the Koran, Sam Harris attacks Christianity for the Inquisition, A.C. Grayling ridicules the label ‘fundamentalist atheist, and finally Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains why she became an infidel.

Okay, well I have named them all. More than you probably needed to know, but you need to know that you need buy this book! Surely if every theist read this book, there would have to be something in there that changes their mind.

What I took away from the book: A lot! But most of all was a newfound love for the work of Bertrand Russell. I don’t know how I got by before I read his insightful brilliant prose.

Rating:10/10

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is the Daniel Dennett book I bought after enjoying his piece in the portable atheist. I perhaps should not be including it with these reviews because I haven’t finished reading it. I should have heeded the advice of Amazon reviewers who said it was a hard read. I thought perhaps I was advanced enough. I was wrong.

That’s not to say it is not good. It’s great. But I struggled with the book for two reasons. Firstly, Dennett rambles on. He makes a point, then he remakes it, and then again. You are given more than enough abstract examples. Perhaps he does this because of the subject matter. Most people with little biology background will struggle with this one. He does a great job of explaining thing

His abstract examples do provide some amazing concepts, which left me thinking for days. Particularly enjoyed the Library of Babel metaphor to understand how many genetic combinations there are. I didn’t get up to the third part of the book, which is on ethics, which I may have understood easier.

What I took away from the book: I really enjoyed the explanatory metaphors. Serious mind fuck material. I really should try finishing this book!

Rating: 6/10

Michael Shermer takes on the intelligent design movement in his brilliant Why Darwin Matters: the case against Intelligent Design. Shermer is much more tolerant and understanding compared to the polemics reviewed above, as he was once an evangelical Christian. In this book he comes to the defence of Darwin and evolution in the face of the growing movement of ID.

Basically Shermer illustrates why ID is a combination of crap science and crap theology. He proves that ID is not science and is an adaptation of Christianity in an attempt to account for scientific advancements. The book is also a great beginning point for those wanting to know more about evolution.

It is refreshing to see an atheist remain civil instead of the stereotypical rabid polemic. That’s not too say I don’t enjoy a good writer take pleasure in ripping apart superstition, but Shermer is a welcome change of tack. And he is certainly capable of exposing ID for the pseudo-science that it is. He even manages to explain why conservatives and theists should embrace evolution. Brilliant.

What I took away from the book: ID proponents are idiots. Fear not atheists, ID is a joke. Religion is in damage control.

Rating: 9/10

Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible things before breakfast is not explicitly a book on atheism, but in seeking evolutionary reasons for belief, Wolpert makes sound arguments for a godless world.

He basically looks at why people believe ridiculous things. He finds examples of how maintaining irrational beliefs historically assisted our survival. In order to operate in the world, we must have some basic understanding of the world, whether right or wrong. We must understand consequences, as in cause and effect, in order to survive.

Wolpert does finish the book stating that religion is good for people, and we must respect religion and those who are religious. After a book in which he seeks to discover why people believe ridiculous things, and defending the materialist position, it is weird that he finishes up saying religion is good for society and that it would be dangerous to rid ourselves of it. He doesn’t really say why adequately.

What I took away from the book: It is helpful to understand why people ignore rational scientific evidence in favour of mysticism. I’m not sure about his last minute defence of religion though.

Rating: 7/10

Preston Jones, a history professor at a Christian college and Greg Graffin, singer in the punk band Bad Religion, discuss science, religion, naturalism and Christianity in Is Belief in God good, bad or irrelevant. Jones, a massive Bad Religion, emails Graffin, who has a PhD in Zoology, and the two engage I a somewhat friendly debate.

In many of the early emails Graffin comes across as an arsehole rock star, as at times he arrogantly dismissive of Jones’s thoughts on matters. As the correspondence progresses Graffin becomes more respectful and some interesting conversations take place. This book is certainly more of a tolerant dialogue as opposed to a passionate polemic like many up the page. The book can be a bit hit and miss though.

Of course I think Greg wins, although fails to de-convert Jones. He has an ability to sum things up succinctly and competently, such as “God is an answer for people who have no idea how the physical world works”.

I think this book is going to appeal more to people who are Bad Religion fans and want to know more about the guy who rights those incredible lyrics. To anyone who is not a Bad Religion fan I could not recommend them more, especially if you want music with intelligent lyrics on science and religion. In fact the best rejection of Pascal’s Wager you will hear is Bad Religion’s “fall of man”.

What I took away from this book: The book confirms what I already thought: Graffin is a genius.

Rating: 7/10

Although not one of the ‘atheist crusaders’, Jared Diamond is a scientist whose books have fuelled my interest in science and human history. Diamond is accessible and easy to read, so there’s no excuse not to understand his work.

Guns, Germs and Steel is brilliant, although more of a human history book than a science of philosophy book, it does offer a sound argument as to how and why human society is as it is now. In a way this book helped mould my worldview as an atheist more so than any of the others I’ve reviewed. The other book of his I’ve read is the Third Chimpanzee, which is a book an evolution, and the differences and similarities between man and chimpanzees.

What I took away from the books: The third chimpanzee provides a clear and accessible overview of evolution and how everything in our lives, from language, to relationships, are products of evolutionary processes. Guns, germs and steel, should change the way you think.

Ratings: 10/10 (both books)

Safran quipped on his show that if you walked up to your shelf and pulled your copy of Stephen Hawking’s Brief history of time, the bookmark would be where you left it a year ago… on page three! Perhaps more so than highlighting the ignorance of atheists, it shows how difficult it is for people with limited knowledge of science to understand things like the big bang or evolution.

Because Hawking’s Brief history of time is considered the biggest selling book that no one has read (or something to that effect), I decided to tackle the simpler Briefer history of time. Anyone who failed with the Brief history of time should give the Briefer history of time a go. Having next to little knowledge of physics and its laws did mean I had to read each page at least twice, it was fulfilling when you finish a chapter and actually understand what was put forward.

There is a lot in this book that will blow your mind. The hardest thing is to comprehend the numbers involved, millions of years, light-years, etc. Of course most of it you have to take Hawking at his word because you can not possibly know either way whether he is right without dedicating your life to the science involved. Some things I just could not understand though, in particular the entire chapter on time travel had me lost.

What I took away from the book: I do not pretend to be an expert on the big bang, or even pretend to really understand the phenomenon, but I get the gist. Just.

Rating: 8/10

Currently on the shelf awaiting reading and review:

Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson (I’ve read the first few chapters, great so far, recommend for beginners.)

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The second half of Dawkins Dangerous idea by Daniel Dennett

I have not included the superb why I am not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell, or any other classics, as I have focused many on more recent releases. Perhaps the subject of a future blog could be historic writing that has influenced me. These are by means a full collection of contemporary atheist literature; it is merely what I have read. There are certainly notable exceptions, some of which may be more vital than any on this list.

The intent of this blog is not to discredit religion or argue that it is all crap, there are enough blogs dedicated to that (I quite like this one, this one and this one), with perhaps more knowledgeable authors than I. The intent of this post is to encourage atheists to challenge their own ignorance and base their lack of faith not just on the ridiculous arguments for faith, but the brilliant arguments for atheism. Oh, and try and understand some of the science!

Cheers,

Paul

Advertisements

5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Atheism, The Case Against God by George Smith is a classic that shouldn’t go without mention too.

Comment by Bad

Thanks Bad,
I haven’t read that book, nor anything by George Smith. What does it mainly cover?

It’s good to bear in mind that although there seems to have been a rush of atheist literature in recent years, writers have been cover this issue for many decades, even centuries. Perhaps scientific advancement has fueled the topic more

For anyone interested in the George Smith Book:
http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Case-Against-Skeptics-Bookshelf/dp/087975124X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1207978669&sr=8-1

Comment by undergroundnetwork

It’s mainly what the title suggests: a long series of arguments against the idea that theism is a compelling conclusion. While it’s decently old and not perfect, I think Smith is a lot more comprehensive and knowledgeable about the relevant philosophical issues than, say, Dawkins is. It’s a real classic though.

Comment by Bad

Cool. I do like the philosophy side of the debate, mainly because I struggle with the science. Perhaps I’ll check it out. Only once I’ve finished my course though, I’ve already got enough books on the back burner!

Cheers

Comment by undergroundnetwork

I read Smith’s book, didn’t care for it.

By the way, thanks for the link!

Comment by chillinatthecabstand




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: