Friday, January 25, 2013

Recent Recommend Reads

I haven't been around the blog much lately, partly because I've been reading some good books. You may find the following items interesting.
The book I finished last night was Nate Silver's, The Signal and the Noise. Citing examples from such diverse fields as climate science, baseball, Texas Hold 'Em and elections forecasting, Silver explains statistical analysis in an interesting, informative, and even entertaining way. The book is a bit long (500+ pages), so you probably won't read it in one sitting. But, if you're willing to take a bit of time each night over several nights, you're likely to learn quite a lot about gambling, earthquakes, and - yes - statistics.
Another book I finished a couple of weeks ago was, Damned Good Company, by Luis Granados. The author selected twenty pairs of contemporaneous historical figures - one secular versus one religious (i.e., Clarence Darrow vs. William Jennings Bryan) - and contrasted ways in which their views intersected, clashed, and influenced the world around them. I'm somewhat surprised this book hasn't gotten wider circulation because it is very well researched (over 1,100 endnotes) and is quite a good read. Granted, Granados doesn't write like Hitchens, but he's more readable than many other better-known authors. Perhaps that's a consequence of being published by The Humanist Press rather than Harper & Row.
The final book I'll mention, which I read after Granados' and before Silver's, is J.K. Rowling's debut in the world of adult fiction, The Casual Vacancy. Having read and enjoyed the entire Harry Potter series with my sons, I had to see how Rowling would handle adult literature. She did quite well, but don't take that to mean that The Casual Vacancy is anything like Harry Potter for grown-ups. Unlike the world of Hogwarts, most, if not all, of the characters in this book are not likable people, so it's likely that readers won't readily align themselves with any of them. It's not even easy to choose one to hate more than the others because they're all equally loathsome. Nevertheless, the story is engaging, especially for anyone who  is intrigued by politics, and one can't help wondering how the issue of the unexpectedly open seat on a small town's council will be resolved. I enjoyed the book, and I'll admit that the ending makes a tragic sort of sense; nevertheless, I wasn't satisfied with the way the final scene played out. If you want to know any more about that, you'll have to read the book and decide for yourself whether I've got that right or missed some profound meaning and symmetry. In my mind, the meaning and symmetry are almost, but not quite, there.
And that, dear friends, is some of what I've been doing lately. Have you read any of these books? If so, let me know what you think in the comments. Do you have any other books to recommend? Write a comment. I'm always open to suggestions.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Last Testament: A Memoir by God

Authors: God & David Javerbaum
Publisher: Simon & Schuster 

Chapter One
1 And lo, YHWH aka Allah, having checked in on the third rock from the sun (aka Earth) and realized that it had been 1,400 years since his last written communication with humankind, decided recently that the time had come to reveal himself anew,
2 And to set the record straight on a few misunderstandings that some of his fervent followers have about him.
3 And so, YHWH aka Allah met with an agent at Simon & Schuster with whom he was pleased to arrive at mutually agreeable terms for the publication of a memoir.  He was also pleased to retain the services of an outstanding amanuensis, David Javerbaum, former head writer and executive producer of The Daily Show,
4 For lo, YHWH aka Allah believes Jon Stewart is one of the funniest comics working today, and wanted to include similarly humorous material in his memoir.
5 Having previously written prolifically in the Hebrew, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim scriptures, YHWH aka Allah limited his memoir to a brief (for him) 383 pages. Or, more likely, he is aware of the short attention spans of many 21st century readers.
6 Early in the book, YHWH aka Allah reveals that a) the first two human inhabitants in Eden were, in fact, Adam and Steve, and b) he planted all of the evidence supporting evolution. He asks, “Canst thou grasp the scope of my hoax, humanity? Can thy mortal minds absorb even a drop of the immense ocean constituting the thoroughness of thy punking?”
7 Verily, I say, woe to readers who expected YHWH aka Allah to reveal that he hates gays, and that the earth is 13.7 billion years old. Woe, indeed, to believers and nonbelievers alike, for YHWH aka Allah is more mysterious than even his followers imagined.
8 And he admits he has anger-management issues. As well as a sadistic streak.
9 Notwithstanding his sadism and anger-management issues, YHWH aka Allah has a sense of humor. In reviewing the Noahic Deluge, YHWH reveals his surprise at the following:
10 The flood took longer than he expected it would take,
11 Many people were better swimmers than he had reckoned they’d be, and
12 Human corpses are effective flotation devices.
13 These revelations underscore one of YHWH aka Allah’s most shocking confessions – he does not know everything.
14 YHWH aka Allah also reveals that he gets angry when Americans sing (incessantly, it seems), “God bless America.”  As he says, “Americans asking me for more blessings is like Tahitians asking me for sunnier days.” And lo, he has a valid point.
15 Behold: YHWH aka Allah loves sports, and even has favorite teams (the Cubs are not among them).  He nonetheless insists that he has never influenced the outcome of any game to determine a winner. His exact words are, “I do not intervene in sporting events . . . because … I care so deeply about the integrity of the game.”

Chapter Two
1 In his most poignant revelation of all, YHWH aka Allah reveals that Jesus’ sacrificial life and death were Jesus’ ideas, not his.  Before Jesus completed his self-appointed mission to rescue humankind from damnation, YHWH aka Allah considered Jesus to be the weaker of his two sons (Holy Ghost being the other one).
2 But lo, by the time Jesus ascended to heaven, YHWH aka Allah gained a new respect for the son he’d previously deemed too soft to be an effective deity. Yea, YHWH aka Allah admits without shame that he, like much of western civilization, is now Jesus-whipped.
3 YHWH aka Allah wrote briefly about Islam. He hesitated to say too much for, by his own admission, he “felt great apprehension concerning the writing of this section.”
4 Nevertheless, he dares to reveal the real reason Muhammad forbade anyone to make a likeness of his image.  Verily, in the interests of promoting book sales, I encourage thee to read the book for thyself if thou wantest to know the reason for that seemingly absurd prohibition.
5 Moving through the centuries, YHWH aka Allah reveals which of Martin Luther’s 95 theses are his favorites (sort of a Billboard Top 40) and which religions he admires (spoiler: Buddhism did not make the list).  I bid thee beware, atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers, for YHWH aka Allah warns thee to “start thinking about what thou mightest say to me on the infinitesimally off-chance that thou findest thyself standing before me. Yea, start thinking about it now, for if it ever does happen, I can promise thee this: it will be a short meeting.”
6 Thou hast been warned.
7 Suitably enough, YHWH aka Allah concludes his memoir with a day-by-day revelation of the End of the World,
8 Which is currently scheduled to occur on December 21, 2012. However, YHWH aka Allah emphasizes that Armageddon's date is open for negotiation should his memoirs sell as many copies as his previous publications.
9 Thou hast been warned.
10 Lo, with The Last Testament in hand, readers will be able to follow along each day as YHWH aka Allah brings brings about Armageddon.
11 Let’s just say St. John the Divine had no clue what he wrotest about.
12 But thou wilt - if thou buyest The Last Testament now. And if thou art looking for the perfect gift for the special people in thy life – consider buying copies for them too.
13 For lo, the world you save may be your own.
14 Thou hast been warned.

Chapter Three
The Last Testament is a light-hearted romp through many of the religious beliefs that are current today, particularly in the USA.  Believers of a conservative bent will likely find the book too irreverent for their tastes, but more liberal believers may enjoy it.  Nonbelievers will likely find it humorous, overall, but may find its length excessive.  I found the book dragged near the end, as I dutifully made my way through nearly twelve months (355 days) worth of end-times revelations.  In my view, the end-time predictions motif was not cohesive enough to sustain 355 disjointed one-liners. Generally speaking, though, the book was enjoyable. Readers who enjoy light, irreverent fare will like this book.  Readers who prefer deeper, more reflective discussions of religion and irreligion are less likely to find this book satisfying.

Thou hast been advised.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Book Note: Founding Faith

Knowing my interests in history and church-state issues, a friend of mine recommend a book to me recently. I will share some thoughts about the book, Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty, in this post.

The author, Steven Waldman, a co-founder of Belief.Net, took a fairly evenhanded approach in his examination of
  • the role of religion in the lives of several American Founding Fathers (Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison),
  • the role of religion in the American Revolution and the formation of the USA, and
  • the role of politics in shaping the USA's fundamental legal documents, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Waldman's evidence led him to conclude:
  • The five men underwent religious transformations throughout their lives. They didn't receive their youthful catechisms and tuck them away to be drawn upon as needed for future reference; they questioned religious precepts all of their lives and, in some cases, ended at positions strikingly different from those they'd held as young men.
  • All five of them felt that some religion was necessary to protect the common folks from moral corruption and equip them to be good citizens; enlightened people could handle the truth about religious fables and live responsibly, but the common folks couldn't be trusted to do the same. Yes, the founding fathers were elitists (but you already knew that).
  • All of them accepted the premise that the universe was created; this is not surprising when one remembers that their lifespans pre-dated the discoveries of Darwin and later scientists.
  • None of them held beliefs that conservative Christians today would consider suitably Christian; today's Christian Right would excoriate the lot of them as heretics.
  • None of them ever intended that the USA would be a theocratic Christian Nation. They were thoroughly committed to religious pluralism, equality and complete freedom of conscience.

Waldman, reminding us that these five men did not found the country alone, provides some fascinating insights into the negotiating processes that went into shaping the nation's founding documents, particularly the First Amendment. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were hammered out - word by word - by representatives from thirteen disparate states, and then sent to those states for ratification by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. Not only was it the will of most Founding Fathers that the USA be a religiously neutral, pluralistic nation, it was the will of many ordinary Americans.

Waldman also notes the importance of remembering that the founding generation could not imagine the ways in which their visions would be realized. For example, since most states did not develop public school systems until the middle and late 19th century, the founders would never have imagined wrangling over school prayer. I suggest that, rather than trying to imagine what Washington or Jefferson would think about such issues, contemporary Americans could better spend our time pondering how the Constitutional principle of pluralism, to take one example, can best be expressed in our contemporary context. The fact is, the USA is no longer the founders' country, it's ours. We need to respect the founders and be grateful for what they gave us, but it's now up to us to use the tools in our hands. Fortunately, for us, the founders gave us good ones, so let's use them wisely.

Near the end of the book, Waldman discusses what he sees as fallacies that contemporary Americans commit when discussing church-state issues. These are:

Conservative Fallacy 1: Most Founding Fathers were serious Christians
Conservative Fallacy 2: Separation of church and state is a 20th century invention of the courts
Conservative Fallacy 3: Advocates of separation are anti-religious

Liberal Fallacy 1: Most founding fathers were Deists or secular
Liberal Fallacy 2: The Constitution demanded strict separation of church and state throughout the land
Liberal Fallacy 3: Separation of church and state was designed mostly to protect religious minorities 

Common Fallacy 4: The founders figured this all out. (Many of them disagreed vehemently, even after the ink was dry, as we still do today, after the pages have yellowed).

In closing, I'll say that I enjoyed Waldman's book. I appreciated the care he took in delineating the theological evolutions of the five founders he examined. I also enjoyed his discussion of the political contexts of the revolution and formation of a new nation based on what were, at the time, radical beliefs and principles. His bias toward religious belief is evident at times, such as when he frames the thinking of the founders as "spiritual journeys," but this doesn't prevent him from reaching the right conclusion regarding the Christian Nation verbiage that today's religious right keeps hurling at our heads: it's bunk (my paraphrase). I can't help wondering, though, if his religious bias led him to downplay the influences of Deism and Enlightenment philosophy on the founders. His discussions of the religious and political contexts of the founders were thorough, but he did not discuss Enlightenment philosophy at all. While I'll concede that secularists may be prone to over-emphasizing the philosophical trends of that era and downplaying the theology, that shortcoming is not best countered by emphasizing the theological contexts at the expense of the philosophy. The theological and philosophical contexts both need to be examined critically and thoroughly if we are to have any hope of understanding the ideas and ideals that motivated America's founders. Notwithstanding this weakness, if you're interested in reading about the religious and political contexts of the American Revolution and early republic, you'll probably enjoy this book.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Let me say, right from the start, that this post probably is not about what you think it's about. Don't blame me. Blame Christopher Fairman, the author of the book under discussion here.  Let me also say that, if you take a quick look at the title of Fairman's book (and miss, overlook or ignore the subtitle), you may be dismayed to discover that his book is not about what you might have thought it would be about either. Nevertheless, if you care at all about freedom of speech and ideas, this is a book you probably should read.

In this provocatively titled book, Fairman discusses the word "fuck" in great detail. He discusses the power of the word, much of which derives from its status as a taboo word and the object of word fetish. He discusses the word's etymology, linguistic and psycholinguistic contexts, its historical uses as a referent to sex and in other ways (as political speech, for example), and its inconsistent judicial status in American jurisprudence. His primary purpose in doing this is to encourage all who care about freedom of thought and speech to protect the use of all language in the formulation and transmission of ideas. Fairman says,
Whether you shout it in the street or whisper it in the bedroom, say it deliberately as a political protest or accidentally let it slip out, make a single fleeting reference or sing an expletive-laden rant, intend to be funny or downright foul, if you say "fuck," someone wants to silence you. We shouldn't passively watch as tiny coalitions with a webpage and a word fetish take some of our words away. When it's the government trying to cleanse your language, you should really worry. We shouldn't tolerate any part of our representative government mucking around in our words....

At issue isn't just protection for some entertainer's potty mouth. Words are ideas. If the government can control the words we say, it can also control what we think. Ultimately, my concern is for the preservation of our most basic liberty - a freedom of the mind (p.10).
Fairman's historical discussion of "fuck" begins with the observation that the word has systematically been excluded from most English dictionaries. He calls this "a deliberate attempt to cleanse the language of this word" (p.37). He also alerts readers that some of the urban legends about the origin of the word as an acronym (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Fornication Under Consent of the King) are false, and explains why this is so. Notwithstanding concerted attempts to wipe the word "fuck" clean out of the English language, the word has been resilient. He explains the reasons for this in a chapter devoted to linguistic and psycholinguistic analyses of the word. One reason for its longevity is its ability to be used in many ways - as a verb (in this case, often with a sexual meaning), an adverb or adjective (these uses are not usually sexual), as a noun (this could be a sexual meaning, but often is not), or simply as an interjection.

One of the evidences of the power of taboo, and the power of fuck as the object of both taboo and fetish, is the use of euphemisms (f-word, f*ck, etc.) in place of the word itself, a practice that Fairman derides as "silly" (p.57). "Fuck" as the object of taboo is in play when its use is avoided (by some) and when its use is deliberately intended (by others) to shock and/or offend; "fuck" as the object of fetish is in play when people have extremely negative emotional reactions to the term and seek to prohibit its use in all circumstances (pp.59-60). Fairman discusses examples of the fuck taboos and fetishes in TV, music, workplaces, classrooms and even courtrooms.

Since Fairman is a lawyer and professor of law, it's not surprising that much of his book deals with legal cases surrounding various uses of the word "fuck." The body of work devoted to legal parsings of this humble little word is quite large, varied and interesting. Not surprisingly, given the seemingly schizophrenic character of American society, the legal status of the word "fuck" is inconsistent, and, consequently, unclear. Sometimes it's obscenity, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's protected speech, sometimes it's not. Fairman contends that this state of uncertainty is not healthy for civic discourse. He bluntly concludes,
The future of fuck is clear. If we continue to allow the state to pick and choose the words we can use and the context in which we can use them, freedom is at stake.... Once that word is extinguished, gone are its literally hundreds of uses, hence hundreds of ideas.... Now you might think I'm an alarmist and that the First Amendment stands to prevent precisely what I foreshadow. But before you discount my fears, please remember: Fuck is being fucked in the shadow of the First Amendment. Neither a Commission nor a court nor a cop should have power over our ideas. To ensure freedom of the mind, fuck must be set free (p. 191).
Fairman's book is well-written, easily grasped and a worthwhile read for anyone with any interest at all in freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. As you've no doubt gathered by now, the book's provocative title was chosen deliberately, precisely because the word "fuck" is tremendously evocative and powerful. It was also chosen deliberately because it is a marginalized (perhaps even endangered) word. When words are marginalized and endangered, the marginalization and endangerment of ideas is not far behind. Freethinkers and freedom lovers can never, in good conscience, allow the intolerance, marginalization and extinction of words and ideas to go unchallenged. I, for one, am indebted to Christopher Fairman for speaking out for my right to fuck.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Creations & Conflicts

When I was a teen, I spent a number of Saturday evenings watching campy Frankenstein movies on TV. Strangely enough, I’d never actually read Mary Shelley’s classic book. I can now report that I’ve corrected that oversight and, in addition to having seen many (but certainly not all) of the Frankenstein movies, I've read the book that spawned the films. As I read Frankenstein, I was struck by some parallels and contrasts I saw between that story and the Genesis account of creation. As I sat down to write this post, I was also struck by a connection I perceived between Frankenstein, Genesis and the Conflict Model of family relationships (also often specified as a model of parent-child relationships), as elucidated by Steven Pinker.

I’ll begin by considering Frankenstein and Genesis. Obviously, Victor Frankenstein, the fictitious creator, is analogous to God, and the monster, the created being is analogous to humankind. Another analog exists between the relative appeal of Frankenstein/God and the created beings. Frankenstein is brilliant and well-loved, and God, of course, is perfect and lacks nothing. In contrast, Adam, Eve and the monster are all flawed beings who unwittingly offend their creators. As the Genesis story goes, Adam and Eve offend their creator when they disobey him; up to that point, the threesome got along just swell. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve learned, after the fact, that the only way to retain their creator’s favor was to obey him without fail. Victor Frankenstein’s monster offends his maker the moment his eyes blink open. The poor sod never had a chance to win his creator’s favor – Frankenstein was repelled by his creation at the instant he gave it life, a revulsion that he nursed and carried with him for the rest of his life. Yet another analog exists between the responses of the creators to their creations: God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, cursing them to fend for themselves in a world that suddenly has been rendered harsh, and Frankenstein abandons the being he created to fend for himself in a strange world populated by people who treat him harshly.

There are, of course, some points at which the similarities break down. For example, Frankenstein never felt any affection for his creation; from the moment the monster opened his eyes and drew breath, Frankenstein sought to destroy him. At several points in the story, the monster begs Frankenstein to make some provisions for him. Finally, he begs for a mate, so that he will not have to spend his entire life alone. Having learned from his brutal experiences that no human being will ever accept him, the monster seeks a companion like himself with whom he can spend his life (similarly, after Adam fails to find a suitable companion in the animal kingdom, God creates Eve to be his companion). Frankenstein breaks down and promises to provide a female companion for the creature. Shortly afterwards, partway through the completion of the task he finds deeply repulsive, he reneges on his promise and destroys the female creature. Consequently, the monster is doomed to live in isolation until the day he dies. In the Frankenstein story, creator and creature will never be reconciled. In contrast, the Genesis story holds that God and humankind can be reconciled, but only at tremendous costs. The humans have to offer repeated animal sacrifices to atone for their wrongdoing and/or appease God’s wrath. (Jumping ahead several centuries - God eventually takes the pressure off the humans and offers the ultimate perfect sacrifice to himself.)

If you google “Frankenstein as cautionary tale,” you’ll find some interesting applications of Shelley’s tale. Some say that humans are cautioned not to “play God” by delving too deeply into scientific inquiries. Others say that it cautions people against judging others on the basis of appearances. Still others say that it’s a cautionary tale against bad parenting. On this view, Victor Frankenstein is, to say the least, a dead-beat dad. This last caution brings me to my final point of discussion, the Conflict Model of family relationships. Steven Pinker has popularized this view in some of his books. One writer summarizes this view thus:

Pinker points out that since a parent shares 50% of his or her genes with each offspring, in evolutionary terms the investment in each should be equal (all other things being equal). But if I am one of those offspring, I share only 50% of my genes with each sibling, but 100% of my genes with myself, so it is in my best interest to suppress parental investment in my siblings and to promote parental investment in myself. Pinker hypothesizes that this may lead to a child’s behavior that, indirectly, helps prevent or delay the parents having another child.

According to Pinker, this behavior is unconscious; it’s just something that’s built into animals’ genetic makeup. Thus, parents and children, and siblings, are always in conflict over the distribution of finite family resources. That being the case, they don’t always share the same goals. In fact, their goals often conflict.

It’s intriguing to look at the Frankenstein and Genesis stories in light of this theory. Victor Frankenstein’s goal was to avoid, then later destroy, his creature. He pursued his goals of glory and scientific accomplishment without giving any thought to the responsibilities that his success in creating a new life, indeed, a new form of life - a species - would entail. When confronted with his responsibility, he fled from it. The creature’s interest, initially, was to get Frankenstein to care for him, or to at least make some minimal provision for his comfort. When Frankenstein failed to do even that much, the creature then shifted his goal toward revenge. It goes without saying that when both parties in a conflict are hell-bent on destroying each other, there is little to no possibility that the parties will live happily ever after. (Spoiler alert: Frankenstein does not have a happy ending). Similarly, the Genesis story tells us that God created human beings for his glory, but humans are inclined to pursue interests of their own devising. Assuming that the creator/creature relationship is analogous to the parent/child relationship (the process by which parents create children is one of nature's wonders), Pinker's Conflict Model fits both the Frankenstein and the Genesis stories. Frankenstein and his monster pursue obvious cross-purposes throughout Shelley's book. Similarly, God and humans aim at contradictory ends in Genesis: God wants humans to be obedient; humans want to be independent. I'll push the theory's application a step farther and note that Cain's murder of Abel (recorded in Genesis) is sibling rivalry writ large, a tendency that is often seen in nature when stronger offspring kill their weaker siblings. All of this is in keeping with a scientific model positing that living beings, even humans in close relationships genetically and affectionately, act in their own self-interests far more often than not.

Genesis, one of the best-known pieces of religious literature in the world, has been around for millennia. Frankenstein, one of the best-known pieces of English literature in the world, has been around for a couple of centuries (it was published in 1818). The Conflict Model of family relationships is the literary and theoretical newcomer; its existence can be measured in decades. I find it fascinating that a contemporary scientific theory can be used to examine the interpersonal complexities portrayed in two pieces of literature rooted in vastly different cultures. I also find it interesting that longstanding literary insights into human nature comport well with contemporary scientific theories. Such reciprocity speaks well for the utility of both science and literature as methods of exploring our humanity and our world.