Wednesday, December 26, 2007

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens (AB)

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Hitchens's critique of religion has a great deal in common with that of Richard Dawkins, and the book follows a similar path of raising and then dismantling successive traditional defences of religion. Hitchens states in the beginning that he differs from Dawkins in that he mainly just wants to be left alone, rather than actively confront religion and attempt to beat it back. But given how effectively he argues against religion later, given the book's subtitle, isn't active engagement a stronger moral stance to take?

Finding little to differentiate between these two books, I still give Hitchens the edge for writing a book that was simply just a little bit more enjoyable. He also narrates the audio version himself, and though not as talented a speaker as Dawkins and his wife, is quite competent.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins (AB)

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Since reading this book I've heard Dawkins on the radio here and there, beating back the accusation that he's "strident." He came to Calgary a few months ago, and Sun Media columnist and professional pinhead Michael Coren wrote a proudly idiotic attack on his book, unwittingly repeating a good many of the less nuanced defenses of religion Dawkins dismantles one by one in the book. For example, the argument from authority. Albert Einstein, Coren said, was a Christian. He asked, "Does Dawkins think he's smarter than Einstein?

If Coren had troubled himself to read the book he was writing about -- even just the first chapter! -- he might have learned Einstein was actually religious only up until the age of 12. In a 1954 letter Einstein wrote, "
If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." Many other quotes confirm Einstein's personal opinion of the gods. Not that Einstein's mere say-so makes any difference to anything. He himself well understood this, or he wouldn't have taken the time to establish the mathematics of relativity, nor taken any interest in whether observations confirmed it. He would have just asserted it.

Anyway, back to Dawkins. A lot of people have said that he's too cynical, or "strident," an adjective used so much to describe him that he might as well put on his business card. I didn't get a sense of that, and I read it a second time specifically looking for examples of uncalled-for spite. It just ain't there. Called-for spite, on the other hand, there is a bit of that. You can hear some anger, for example, when he talks about religion motivating human sacrifice.

But Dawkins makes it clear, at the outset, that he rejects the notion that religious ideas are entitled to any special respect, other than what is afforded to any other idea. If you think your religion is above criticism then you're bound to be insulted, in the sense of the
Onion headline: "I've never been so accurately insulted in all my life."

There were a few passages in which I could agree Dawkins may have drawn his arguments out beyond strict necessity. There are times when it reads as though religion is a defendant on trial. Dawkins is the prosecutor, and I'm the jury. And he's in his third day of closing arguments, when I was ready to convict after the first witness. How I feel, in that analogy, depends on whether the arguments are, at least, entertaining. Given the scope of Dawkins's knowledge of religion, I say they are. The whole book, in my own case, was preaching to the choir right from the title on, but God is in the details, and the details here are well worth your time.

In audio format, this is a particularly engaging book because Dawkins himself reads it, along with his wife, who is an accomplished actress. In an interview I heard, somewhere, he said he essentially wrote the book out loud in the first place. He and his wife read long passages from first drafts to each other, testing how they sound to the ears of someone hearing them for the first time. Voice talent in audiobooks, when it is memorable, is memorably bad as often as memorably good. This is one of the best in that regard. They also switch voices when quoting other sources, which is a nice touch if done well.

I found myself wondering if there exists a person capable of answering any of Dawkins criticisms, without departing from the premise that the debate ought to be rational. I cast about for a while looking for such a debate on some other blogs and columns, but found none. If you are such a person, please comment.

Bookshelf introduction

This blog will be as much for me as for you. I've found in the past that it helps me to retain what I've read if I write down a few words about it, whenever I finish a book. But, if you're reading this and you're looking for recommendations, I'll make a few. Here's how I'll structure it.

Zero stars means, of course, don't bother. You won't see many of those because unless I'm in dire circumstances, I don't finish reading them.

One star means that I recommend it if you've got a strong interest in that subject area or genre.

Two stars means I recommend it if you are even slightly interested in the subject.

Three stars means I recommend it to everyone.

Four stars means I'll buy it for you myself, just read it for crying out loud.

I'll also make a note of it with an AB when I've "read" the audio format of the book. I think it still counts as reading, and there's nothing better for long drives. I go through a lot of audio books. But the details when I sit down to review them can be hazy, because I can't just pick up the book and flip to the part I'm thinking of, and quote it.