May 1, 2019

We have created this thread to provide a dedicated space for the discussion of books. Pretty much any kind of book – it doesn’t have to be about atheism or religion or science or politics. It doesn’t even have to be non-fiction.

All we ask is that, whatever the topic or genre, the books are stimulating, intelligent and thoughtful, so that they are actually worth discussing, and that you post any recommendations along with a commentary giving a bit of background and explaining why you’re recommending it. Clearly “worth discussing” is open to interpretation, but hopefully you get the idea. Books originally in a language other than English are fine too, provided an English translation is available.

The only real restriction is that, in keeping with our Comment Policy, users should not use this thread to promote any books they may have written themselves or  have any other kind of personal stake in.

We hope you enjoy this new thread.

196 comments on “BOOK CLUB

  • I’ll be back here after work to post a fuller review of Saini “Inferior” a book I’ve come to like a lot.

    Quite a few others to catch up on too…


    Utopia for Realists

    The Goodness Paradox

    Creating Freedom

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  • Currently revisiting Sam Harris ‘Waking Up’. I never finished it but enjoyed re-reading the first chapter, which for me was more engaging than some of what followed. He goes into an early teen experience with solitude during a summer camp and how he wasn’t able to fully appreciate it and wondered about the transcendence noted by some of his older peers. He then segues into an experience a few years later with a male friend where he tries MDMA for the first time and how that was absolutely transcendent for him. An interesting juxtaposition of experiences just a few years apart.

  • I’m currently reading The Overstory, by Richard Powers. This book won the Pulitzer prize for fiction, 2019. So far, separate stories with a motif of trees running through them.
    Glad to see this thread show up here. I love to hear what people are reading!
    On deck, I have the new one by Oliver Sacks and I think I remember preordering a new one by Jared Diamond.

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  • 4
    Michael 100 says:

    I just finished reading Attack of the Theocrats, How the Religious Right Harms Us All – and What We Can Do About It, by Sean Faircloth.  It’s a good companion to Kevin M. Kruse’s book One Nation Under God.  Faircloth has been the Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America, as well as director of strategy and Polity at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason. 

    What I particularly like about the book is Faircloth’s emphasis on organization.  Faircloth has been a successful politician, so it’s not surprising that he would recognize that.  The reason the theists have so much political power is their ability to organize.  Although the “nones” are a fast-growing segment of the population, we are not organized and therefore not recognized by politicians as a group to be courted.  There should be several atheist / freethinker clubs in every city and town in this country – it’s a small village indeed that doesn’t have at least one church at its center, and yet atheist clubs are nearly impossible to find even in the largest cities – at least in the United States.  Faircloth says that by 2020, he wants to have organizations in every state of the USA.  I hope he’ll be successful. 

    On this Labor Day – May 1, I’m remembering the words of the anthem Solidarity Forever – “Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one, But the union makes us strong.”  I’m sure Faircloth would endorse that concept, and I hope that as our organizations become more numerous, we remember the organizing strategies of the old labor movement, the leaders of which eschewed the superstitions of religion.  It’s no coincidence that when the labor unions were at the height of their power in the 1950s, the religious right was in its infancy and in just a couple decades as their influence grew the unions’ declined.  The theocrats would probably never have attained the power they now have absent the energetic support of the wealthy industrialists and other influential people who had been forced to pay their fair share by the policies of the New Deal and by the strong organization of the working class.  The theocrats saw the power of organization which they found in churches of all stripes at the same time as the rank & file worker grew tired of it. 

    I think Sean Faircloth lays out a great blueprint that deserves a lot of attention.     

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  • I’ve been a huge fan of Faircloth ever since he asserted that atheists should lead on the moral potential it offers. Maddeningly too many atheists were content with the claim that we can be moral too.


    No, we start from a more honest base.


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  • Phil

    Maddeningly too many atheists were content with the claim that we can be moral too.

    I for one could never be content with that claim. We can be moral too?! In fact, I won’t be lumped in with theists at all when it comes to morality. I would edit the claim to read – Theists can be moral too, despite the fact that they’re religious.

    I think that was very generous of me.  😉

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  • Great idea to have this thread. I’ll take my chance and ask you: have you ever read “A universe from nothing” by L. Krauss? I bought it with “some” delay few weeks ago (it was years that I wanted to read it, never got the chance, my wishlist is incredibly long), but I would like to have some comments by anyone of you that read it. Is it worth my time or not? Some reviews are not so positive about it…

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  • Donnie, hi.

    FWIW I’m an atheist and a physicist (by education) but have never been a great fan of LK on either of these counts. I mention this because jealousy may be a thing here.


    On  “A Universe from Nothing” it is OK but flawed by his equivocation of what “nothing” is or could be. I think better accounts exist that allow that there is always something, just not necessarily  matter, energy, dimensions, unidirectional time etc. I think a better description of our current (net) understanding is that there is in existence a Principle, some version of a quantum reality (a subset) that is unextended  by the existence of a spacetime and all its properties, that if it has time at all, it is time symmetric, that is yet able to spawn a spacetime (which itself is net nothing) with those  interior properties of matter, energy, dimension and entropic time. This principle simply IS (so not to be thought of as simply a “before thing”) and if it is, then, “from nothing” is misleading. More to the point many physicists work on this “nothing”.

    Krauss isn’t misrepresenting what may be true, its just that his metaphorical picture painting isn’t as helpful as others.


    In fairness also he does acknowledge Alex Vilenkin with one of the best views to date, though he snidely observes he published without fully understanding what his maths told him.



    For me a much richer and broader book and straying well outside of physics alone, is Sean Carroll’s latest, “The Big Picture”. Just bursting with good ideas. Twice as thick and four times the content.

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  • Angela Saini’s “Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong” is an important book. I won’t detail it in any great way, though its full of delicious nuggets.


    I had problems with it at first because of judgement calls on Darwin and Simon Baron Cohen. But the specifics of the objections were sound, just that I had the feeling that other aspects of their work was seen to be contaminated.  This was utterly unjust of me. Saini time and again distinguishes the quality of  ideas from opinions on scientists’ cultural bias etc..

    The grim failure of male scientists and philosophers (mostly of the past) to conceive alternative models for a gender spared ribbed into irrelevance, was quite an embarrassing, in a well detailed litany of self serving aggrandisement.

    This is a thoroughly good grounding in all of science’s stumbling towards a more realistic understanding of our species, for it is exactly that, not a restoration of some imagined gender balance but a rich complex insight into how our species actually works at all its levels. The anthropological data was a particular pleasure to me, not having anywhere near enough in my head.

    The jewel of an idea for me, (and unsurprising for me given her contact with Birkbeck and UCL) was the insight offered by neuro-constructivism that allowed culture and very early experience to dictate neural outcomes that may well be misapprehended as driven solely by genetic factors. This really does account for why there are these entirely different modes of gender role in the anthropological data. It was an idea that could see very much greater expansion perhaps in later books. We really do breed ourselves.

    And this is why I still hurt a little over Simon Baron Cohen’s treatment. Of late he has been entirely open to this new way of seeing even early gender differentiation. His and Darwin’s gender hypotheses were after all, well, hypotheses, some still good some not.

    But excuses have no place in that strict mistress, Science.

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  • I’m pants at editing against the clock.

    Yes, the previous editing window didn’t really give you long. We’ve just doubled it, to 10 minutes. Hope that helps!

    Just be aware that returning to posts to edit them (especially if they contain links) increases the risk that the system will automatically put them into moderation. There’s nothing we can do about this (and the logic behind it is sound in any case), but we do check regularly and will restore legitimate comments asap.

    The mods

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  • Yay! Doubling the time will possibly triple its utility. I look at the clock. 2 minutes? Not worth the risk. Even finding the problem again in the weird little window is intimidating.

    On  links I often announce my intention to link then single link in subsequent posts. It helps get stuff out in a timely fashion e.g. before folk go to bed.

    Thanks, mods. This is, though, a good help.

    Oh and

    “…quite an embarrassing experience…”

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  • 13
    Michael 100 says:

    I’ve read A Universe From Nothing a couple times.  In my opinion, Professor Krauss makes a very complex subject somewhat understandable for lay people like me. I say “somewhat” because there are times when I have to say to myself “just keep reading, pretend you understand the material.” Eventually things fall into place and begin to make some sense. After reading the book, and reflecting frequently on it, I have more confidence in my own atheism. Although I long ago rejected the idea that there is a supernatural world, it’s exciting to have a glimpse at 21st century knowledge of how the cosmos actually works.

    I also like Dr Krauss’ book, The Greatest Story Ever Told, So Far.  Based on Phill’s recommendation, Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture goes to near the top of my reading list.

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  • 14
    Michael 100 says:

    One of the first essays I posted on this site was #13, October 2018, the subject of which was my thoughts after watching a YouTube clip entitled ”St. Thomas Meets Richard Dawkins – Aquinas on God,” in which a Dominican friar and professor of philosophy, makes his case that Aquinas’ teachings, found in The Summa Theologiae and The Summa contra Gentiles, are more relevant than the science espoused by Professor Dawkins.  My point was that a lot of water has gone under the bridge since the 1200s, and that if Aquinas had known then what we know now, Aquinas would probably agree with 21st century science. 

    It was later pointed out, #116, that I erroneously noted that Georges-Henri Lemaître had coined the term the term “Big Bang,” when it was actually Fred Hoyle who coined it. I acknowledged the error, # 121, and continue to do so.  

    Fast forward:

    I’m currently reading God: the Failed Hypothesis, by Victor J. Stenger. In chapter 4, under the heading Beginning and Cause, Stenger writes:  “In 1951 Pope Pius XII told the Pontifical Academy, “Creation took place in time, therefore there is a Creator, therefore God exists.”  The astronomer/priest Georges-Henri Lemaître, who first proposed the idea of a big bang, wisely advised the pope not make this statement “infallible.””  

    When I read that passage, I had to laugh, and I went back and reread the October 2018 passages.  That particular remark in #13, was something I had not checked, and it only took a couple minutes to verify that I had indeed been mistaken, but I knew I got the notion someplace. While I was wrong that Lemaître coined the term, I was right that he counseled the pope on that subject, and that he had proposed the idea for which Sir Fred coined the term. 

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  • Hi Phil [#1],

    I read Econocracy, on your recommendation.

    It is tempting to sideline it as undergraduate diatribe, but at the end I confess they won me over.

    They report on the very worrying trends where fixed pricing has led to long term under funding, universities are forced to consider themselves as primarily economy-supporting training units and the subsequent undermining of liberal education – particularly critical and creative thinking.

    They also come up with some good ideas on how to improve the current devaluation of university education – I could find no news on universities actually grasping the nettle though.


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  • Hi Michael [#13],

    In my opinion, Professor Krauss makes a very complex subject somewhat understandable for lay people like me. I say “somewhat” because there are times when I have to say to myself “just keep reading, pretend you understand the material.”

    I like your candid admission.  It reminded me of high school.  My old English teacher, Mr. Smith (no really), once asked the class: “Who here has trouble reading?” and he was the only person who put his hand up.  He then asked a series of other questions: Do you ever get to the end of a line and find yourself re-reading the same line?  Do you ever find yourself stopping and having to re-read a paragraph to grasp its meaning? Do you ever discover that you must have skipped a sentence in an earlier passage, and have to hunt backwards for it?

    Then the teacher asked the class again: “Who here has trouble reading?” and most hands went up.

    Text is old technology, and like all technologies designed to aid human communication it’s flawed.  From that day I was never embarrassed to read with a dictionary at my elbow, or to admit that I’m a slow reader.

    The Net, of course, has greatly simplified checking for the meanings of things. I remember, as a teenager, being greatly frustrated that my family did not possess a medical dictionary – no problem today.

    Technical language is necessary, and each field has its own.  Lawrence Krauss tries hard, but cannot completely escape the use of philosophical and scientific language – specifically from cosmology, particle physics and the theories of spacetime – in A Universe from Nothing.

    I urge you to spend time looking up the meanings of the words being used by Krauss, and to use a search engine to look up anything that looks like a stock phrase and see if alternative uses might help you to better understand their meaning.


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  • Hi Stephen.


    I bought the Phil Torres on sciento-eschatology and rather speed skimmed it. It looked honourable enough but the subject matter seemed familiar to me and I couldn’t resist the lure of other books in areas where my education is lacking. I should give it another go someday.


    I’m glad you got something out of Econocracy. I can see why you might have thought it getting rather parochial, but I thought the observation of a dramatic narrowing in (global!) economics education, reducing it to neo-classical economics dogma with its poverty of metrics of the Good and indeed poverty of reliable epidemiological validation, was very, very timely.


    The book offers a staging post between the extensive and malign educational project of James McGill Buchanan in the 1950s  (Nancy MacLean “Democracy in Chains”) and the growing rediscovery of earlier and other economic tools in the books of Rutger Bregman and Ja Hoon Chang etc.. We are remarkably automatic in our judgement calls (compared with only a few decades ago) of what good economic governance constitutes and there is some kind of willful blindness in our Western understanding of the distinctions of  Tiger Economies despite their 5% growth versus our own 2%.

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  • Thanks Phil.

    To be honest I was quite looking forward to someone coming along and telling me that Torres’ book is great.  C’est la vie.

    We are remarkably automatic in our judgement calls (compared with only a few decades ago) of what good ….

    … information consists of.

    Indeed. It is a trend we need to reverse.

    No, I’m not joking, and yes, that seems a big ambition.  To me this is a natural corollary to the knowledge and application of critical thinking.  It is not epidemiologies we need to pursue it is epistemologies.



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  • I have frequently proposed in my ideal economic system that measuring the hell out of everything all the time, improvements in services, declines, changes in all the metrics of well-being, attitudes to those changes, by all the different social groupings we can conceive and epidemiologically tied to policy enactment via probabilities and offered back to the voting public, both as raw and processed data, with official and non-official commentary, then, then the loop will start to be closed as the metrics however they are termed, will start to mean what they detectably do.

    Like language, meaning is only reliably made by what words ostensibly manifest. Metaphysics as Wittgenstein  demonstrated endlessly, cannot of itself, prove any mooted metaphysical objects.

    I think new metrics will emerge in the same way as language emerges, from ostensible need.

    Now we can enact such massive continual data gathering. Truly knowing effects on society in the finest-grained fashion, we ought to be able to manage what we may or may not have achieved through policies like thus and so, through building, in Bayesian fashion, a better predictive model of policy outcomes. It ought to allow the kinds of policy technocrats, like the Chinese, enact, fully predicting outcomes with error bands and forming contingency measures for things coming off track.

    Policy in the hands of dogmatists should become anathema. Only with a refined sensitivity to all consequences on all folk of enacted policy, can a society evolve away from crude manipulations and choose between increasingly informed policy offerings.

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  • Hi Phil [#20],

    Blimey guv’nor I said I had a dictionary at my elbow, not that I swallowed one!

    Nice one.

    Now we can enact such massive continual data gathering. 

    I’m not a fan of the surveillance state.

    I’m also not a fan, as a manager, of box-ticking exercises.  Forgive me if I have misinterpreted.

    Big Data, as the ICT companies term it, may indeed hold out much potential.  But at what costs to human rights?

    Policy in the hands of dogmatists should become anathema

    That’s a nice dream.

    Only with a refined sensitivity to all consequences on all folk of enacted policy, can a society evolve away from crude manipulations and choose between increasingly informed policy offerings

    I support your vision of a state that is truly empathetic to its citizens.  I’m a practical guy, I need something more.


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  • Sorry about the excessive words.

    I stammered as a kid. Then I was taught Latin and some Greek vocabulary which are secret codes to the English language. My vocabulary tripled so I always had an alternate word when some problem term loomed on the horizon. No longer beaten for being pathetic, I was beaten, rather, for being a show off. Much better… Its stuck, sadly. If anything its getting worse.


    No surveillance intended. Like a census on your smart device you can report your opinion. It would be part of the democratic process. Data really would be anonymised. The tech would need to be validated transparently because if the reassurances could not be comprehensively provided none of this would work. (I have in mind a combination of VPNs, a blockchain phantom-self and a heisenbergian algorithm that prevented sufficient data being extracted at any transient phantom identity occasion to search records for a living person match… OK hit me.)

    Myself, I don’t do social media and I put nothing out I don’t feel safe with. I loathe private companies using and profiting from my data, but I do believe my data can be used for the good of all if subject to the best controls.


    Evil governments? Well that’s really the whole point of putting policy selection in the hands of a much more informed and engaged electorate. A much more transparent government and Civil Service is needed in response, not least because I imagine quite a lot of us will become at least part time civil servants as even more jobs are robotised.

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  • 24
    Cairsley says:

    Quarecuss (#23)

    I have not read the book you mentioned. Even so, saying that in his book the author describes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris as strident is not a recommendation of the book to others, for there is simply nothing strident about either of these men in either their published writings or the great array of film and video footage of each of them available to the public. In writing of screeching activists shouting down public speakers, one might have reason to use the word ‘strident’, but one has to wonder what the author you mentioned means by that word. Since the study of idiolects was never a branch of linguistics that interested me much, I will not read the book to find that out either.

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  • 26
    Cairsley says:

    Quarecuss #25

    If you find that Massimo Pigliucci has something interesting to say about Stoicism or stoicism in that book, I am sure I would not be the only reader here who would like to know what you found most interesting. It is fitting that you should stoically press on with it.

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  • q and Cairsley


    Here’s the man himself-


    Within Stoic circles, the major source on happiness is of course Seneca, who wrote a whole book about it. From that book, we can extract what I occasionally call Seneca’s seven commandments, though wise suggestions would be a better way to put it (On the Happy Life, XX, commentary here):
    I) I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance.
    II) I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not.
    III) I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.
    IV) Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.
    V) I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience.
    VI) I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men half-way.
    VII) Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits.
    I wager that this would be a far better world if we all strove to match our behavior to Seneca’s advice.

    FWIW, I think he misjudges both RD and Harris for thinking they don’t endorse the separateness, and personal-ness of value, distinct from scientific truth.

    But his interest in multilevel evolution is a valid disagreement, though, for me not always on the money. But, hey, there’s a lot of new territory now.

  • 30
    Cairsley says:

    Many thanks, Phil, for the input. Being unfamiliar with Massimo Pigliucci and put off by a report of his misrepresentations of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in his book How to Be a Stoic, I have been moved to find out more about him and to add him to my reading-list, thanks to your comments and the link you provided.

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  • I logged a post about three years ago after reading a book that I thought would be of interest on this site but there was nowhere specific to post it. Thanks for creating the Book Club.

    ‘ The Second  Coming ‘ by John Niven, published 2011. If bad language offends do not read it, if you want a good laugh and cry about the usual subjects on this site, have a good read.


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  • Jesus, #32

    Can you tell us more? Give us a bit of a feel for the book and tell us why you are recommending it, what makes it stand out in your view? A recommendation on its own doesn’t really tell us much!


    The mods

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  • 34
    Michael 100 says:

    I just finished reading God: The failed Hypothesis, How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, by Victor J. Stenger (born January 29, 1935, died August 27, 2014).  I became aware of the book while watching a YouTube video in which Christopher Hitchens refers to it.  The first thing I noticed when I downloaded a sample of the book was that the Forward is written by Hitchens.  Hitchens notes that Stenger shows that science and religion do not belong to “non-overlapping magisteria,” Stephen Jay Gould’s phrase which Hitchens frequently used.  Hitchens’ recommendation was enough for me, I downloaded the book and was not disappointed.  Because I downloaded the book, I’m unable to provide page numbers for the quotes I give below.
    Stenger argues that we no longer need be agnostic – that we can say with scientific confidence “god does not exist.”  Rather than concede that the existence of God cannot be disproved because science deals exclusively with natural rather than supernatural phenomena, Stenger’s thesis  is that any claim, i.e. any hypothesis, put forward by religion, can be tested in the same way as any other hypothesis.  Unless a hypothesis, natural or supernatural, passes muster, it can, and should be, rejected as failed.  In a series of 10 chapters, a preface and a postscript, Stenger subjects the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions to the scientific method and finds that not one belief comes close to success.  Stenger demonstrates that religious beliefs developed during humanity’s childhood and infancy when the existence of a divine celestial ruler was as good an explanation of natural occurrences as primitive people could come up with, and how their ideas comported with their ideas of social and political as well as scientific concepts. Stenger shows how beliefs, expressed in scriptures contain gross errors of scientific fact; nor can a single biblical prophecy can be shown to have been fulfilled.  Not a single claim of private revelation has ever been confirmed.  To those who would argue that God created the physical laws of the universe, and then somehow withdrew to let nature run its course, Stenger says: “Based on our best current scientific knowledge, it follows that no creator exists who left a cosmological imprint of a purposeful creation.”  Stenger tackles the problem of evil, and the problem of a god who does not revel “himself” such that no one can deny “his” existence, both of which detract from the possibility of divine existence.
    I thought that a particularly beautiful chapter was No. 5, The Uncongenial Universe, where in Stenger shows that if the cosmos was created for human beings, there was a lot of wasted time and effort.  Stenger writes: “If God created a universe with at least one major purpose being the development of human life, then it is reasonable to expect that the universe should be congenial to human life.”  In this chapter Stenger discusses the enormous scale of the cosmos, and how we evolved on this tiny speck of dust, that Carl Sagan described as a pale blue dot.  “In short, if God created the universe as a special place for humanity, he seems to have wasted an awfully large amount of space where humanity will never make an appearance.  He wasted a lot of time, too.  Instead of six days, he took nine billion years to make Earth, another billion years or so to make life, and then another four billion years to make humanity.  Humans have walked on Earth for less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth’s history.”
    Stenger spends time showing that our moral values do not come from the scriptures.  He quotes George Bernard Shaw: “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says.  He is always convinced that it says what he means.”  Atheists are often asked what it would take for them to believe, to which Stenger answers: “If scientific observations had confirmed at least one model god, then even the most skeptical atheist would have to come around and admit that there might be some chance that God exists.”  Stenger offers 11 hypothetical observations which would favor the god hypothesis.  E.g., purely natural processes might have been proved incapable of producing the universe.  I like his 11th possibility: “Believers might have had a higher moral sense than nonbelievers and other measurably superior qualities.  For example, the jails might be filled with atheists while all believers live happy, prosperous, contented lives surrounded by loving families and pets.”
    Are scientists just closed-minded bigots who stubbornly refuse to believe in god?  On the contrary, Stenger writes: “If scientific evidence for God turned up that passed the conventional tests … then scientists in every field would be happily busy writing research grant proposals to study his nature…”    

    In a lot of the book I found that rather than plowing new ground, Stenger restates and summarizes a modern, scientific, view of the cosmos in which we live.  Stenger freely quotes and cites authors such as Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krause, Stephen Hawking among many others including his own work.  In my opinion, this book and its bibliography is an excellent resource.  The book was both informative and a pleasure to read.  I think it will be a resource for me for a long time to come.

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  • Michael 100

    Good one! I remember the first time I viewed the video that the book is based on. It changed everything.

    I finished The Overstory by Richard Powers and I come away from it with new knowledge of trees, a sense of foreboding over the destruction of our forests and some guilt over my lack of knowledge about trees in general. I admit to spending a disproportionate amount of my studies on the zoology side of biology and neglecting the botany side of things.

    I do know of most of the trees that were referenced in that book but when I look out to my street and neighborhood and lately driving around I realize how deficient I am in identifying more than four or five types of trees! I really want to remedy the situation.

    Overstory is a fiction but it’s a fiction that a nonfiction reader can love. I’m not much of a fiction reader and I tend to lose my patience with most fiction and I’m properly ashamed of myself for that. I do recognize the art and skill and talent of writing fiction but just when I pick up a nonfiction on the topics I love it really does seem like it was written just for me and my arcane special interests. The list of those books reads like a collection of evo-psych science nerd brain candy.

    Last night I started Everything in its Place by Oliver Sacks. The book is a posthumous publication of essays and I’ve gone through a couple so far.

    Sacks must have been a fascinating person. One of those types that everyone thinks – I wish I’d have been friends with that guy! So smart. So interesting. Never boring! His death is a great loss. I’ve enjoyed everyone of his wonderful books that I’ve read. I may have missed two or three but I’ve worked my way through most of them over the course of a few years now.

    In the new book, Sacks writes about his love of swimming and how it was a connection with his father who was also a skillful swimmer. Sacks himself must have been an accomplished swimmer based on his description of the distances he swam and the years he devoted to the sport.

    Another essay deals with the life of Humphry Davy, extraordinary chemist who Sacks admired greatly. I read about the life of Humphrey Davy in the excellent book The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, but I was happy to read Sack’s version of the life of Davy.

    I’ll keep plugging on Sack’s book and then it’s on to the new one by Jared Diamond, Upheaval.


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  • I’m half way through  Richard Holmes Coleridge biographies (about to start the second) But I also have his Shelley of whom I rate as critical to our collective liberation from the mind forged manacles. I’m hoping also for a good helping about the Wollstonecrafts, mother and daughter. Such truly innovative thinkers all three, as much as any inventing our modern, curious, creative and braver culture.

    Must get that Sacks!

    Michael, your Stenger review was excellent. There is something delightful about finding reviewers that are like minds enough to trust, but different enough to surprise and stimulate.

    I think this thread could become essential.

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  • Phil

    I was just about to mention that TV series Genius that started with the first season on Einstein, the second on Picasso and the third season to come was to be on Mary Shelley. I was really looking forward to that but now I see on the series Wiki page that they’ve changed the subject to Aretha Franklin. I’m sure this will be perfectly good but I was soooo looking forward to Mary Shelley. Oh well. Your book list is duly noted.


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  • cairsley #30  and phil rimmer #29

    saw pigliucci’s ted talk

    and now finished his how to be a stoic book

    here’s part of the response to it/him


    it might have been a mild success
    but for that anti-godlessness
    that    though it takes up little space
    still permeates you stoic case
    and poisons all the sage advice
    with philosophic prejudice
    ignoring harris    for example
    on whose name you briefly trample
    without one mention of free will
    which he argues with great skill
    we do not have    despite our view
    we have control of what we do
    so much of what you stoics hold
    is based on what can be controlled
    your fourfold virtues so depend
    upon the sense that we intend
    have agency and mastery
    of part    at least   of history
    but neuroscience sharp and new
    does not support this antique view
    thus undermining your dry tome
    not just the virtues    but the list
    of twelve commandments you insist
    will see us through and get us home

    part of a little book being a cynic

    with images of diogenes of sinope barking at many including plato

    and maybe pigliucci

  • Maybe, q, maybe we have it wrong to think that the four virtues, say, reside in us and are exerted or expressed by individuals through acts of will. Indeed, just as you suggest.

    Perhaps we need to imagine them as residing in specific cultures, and that culture breeds and trains  individuals likely to express a culture’s virtues. Culture is the principle owner of the virtue in question.


    “Creating Freedom”, Raoul Martinez. might prove interesting.

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  • 44
    Michael 100 says:

    Yesterday, I happened to think of an author I started reading a few years ago, got distracted and never finished – Arthur Koestler.  I went to the Appel book store and discovered that a lot of his work is now available in electronic format.  Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905 and died in London March 1, 1983.  He and his wife committed suicide (  I wonder if Koestler and Christopher Hitchens were friends, I have to think that Hitchens would have found Koestler influential (does anyone know?).  Had he lived, Koestler would have made a wonderful addition to the Horsemen group.  In his younger days, he was a Communist, but broke with the party when he discovered what the revolution had become under Stalin.  His most famous novel is Darkness at Noon, is about the 1930s show trials in the Soviet Union – I’ve read that a few times and am going to read it again soon.  Before the Russian Revolution, he was a war correspondent for a British newspaper and covered the Spanish Civil War (see Spanish Testament).  During the war, he was captured and sentenced to death (see Dialogue with Death).  Those two just went to the top of my reading list.
       Koestler wrote a novel about Spartacus entitled The Gladiators – much better story than any of the Hollywood versions.
     I read Koestler’s Arrival and Departure which tells the story of a young man who arrived at a refugee port where he waits for his documents to be processed to a safe country.  While he was waiting, he met a psychologist – also waiting for travel documents – who he knew as a child.  She has the young man move in with her since she has better accommodations, and while they waited, she helps him sort out some mental health issues.  Finally, his papers are processed, and he boards a ship bound for the United States.  Before the ship sailed, however, his conscience gets the better of him and he decides that he must rejoin his comrades in the war.

    Writing this has made me anxious to re-read the novels mentioned above and to read the rest of Koestler’s work.  In addition to his great subject matter, Koestler’s style of writing is beautiful – he was a real wordsmith.     

  • Michael #44

    I’m glad you’ve moved the discussion onto fiction (even if much of Koestler’s work reads like journalism).

    His Darkness at Noon is one of the most searing books I’ve ever read: a truly devastating portrayal of totalitarianism and repression. And, as you rightly say, beautifully written.

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  • 48
    Michael 100 says:

    Phil: Thanks for the article by Christopher Hitchens about Arthur Koestler. When I reread some of his novels, and read others for the first time, I’ll keep this article close by.  When I read Arrival and Departure, for the first time, I remember wondering how much of the psychological turmoil of the main character was autobiographical.  I think the Michael Scammell biography  might be worth a read too ( it looks like he wrote two, one in 2009 the other in 2011).  I think I remember reading about the chaotic circumstances of Koestler’s suicide, and the tragedy of his wife joining him.


    One thing I found interesting in Hitchens’ article was Koestler’s theory that Ashkenazi Jews were descended from the lost people of Khazaria.  By coincidence, five or six years ago I read a book by Shlomo Sand entitled The Invention of the Jewish People.  In Chapter 4, there are sections under the headings: Jewish Kagans? A strange Empire Rises in the East; Khazars and Judaism – A long Love Affair?; Modern Research Explores the Khazar Past; The Enigma – The Origin of Eastern Europe’s Jews.  When I read Sand, I was most interested in learning about Zionism vis-a-vis the rise of nationalism in Europe, but I recall his sections about the Khazari people.


    It’s sad to learn that Koestler became “bewitched” (to use Hitchens’ word), by theories of levitation, ESP, telepathy, and UFOs.  My impression of his earlier life was that he was an atheist, through and through.  Perhaps in the end, the alcohol and mental illness took it’s toll.  Back in the 1960s, when I was a freshman in college, I had a professor who said: “A genius is like a man with the sun in his belly – he gives light to the whole world, but it burns his guts out.”


    Thanks again for the link to the article.

  • My pleasure, Michael.

    Hitchens can be a bit bitchy at times. He gives good gossip. But the supernatural nonsense was a notable lapse for Koestler towards the end.

    The only book of AK’s I still have is Janus, A Summing Up. which details a quite respectable theory of “holons”, a bit like fractals working bidirectionally in scale… er… or something. These had the capacity to explain life the Universe and Everything, but also transcendental, or supernatural phenomena [?!]. He may well have developed a desire to find evidence of these to validate this final work.


    Orwell has an interesting review of the three key novels. He rated Darkness at Noon very highly.



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  • 51
    Michael 100 says:

    Recently, LaurieB & I engaged in a discussion of an article that appeared in The New Yorker about the relationship between mind altering substances and religion vis-à-vis the mystical, spiritual, experiences that can be had through each of those mediums.  See Open Discussion May 2019, #s 71 through 74.
    Today, on WGBH public radio’s Fresh Air, I heard the tail end of an interview of Michael Pollan, author, journalist, activist, and the Lewis K. Chan Arts Lecturer and Professor of Practice of Non-Fiction at Harvard University. Pollan is also professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Wikipedia.
    Pollan was interviewed about his 2018 book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.  Published by Penguin Press.  I probably won’t have time to read the book for some time to come, if ever, but if someone is looking for something to read, this book might have something to add to the body of knowledge of brain activity as it relates to “spiritual” as opposed to “religious” experiences.  I’d love to read someone’s review of the book.      

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  • Phils video link!


    I had night terrors and bed wetting until I was about nine years old. The bed wetting stopped but bad dreams and fear of the dark continued. I used to sleep with just my nose sticking out of the covers so whatever came into the room to harm me would not see me. I still used to wake up with bad dreams but not the screaming for thre or four more years. I used to challenge myself in the dark. Not sleeping with a night light or switching on the lights to walk from one end of the long corridor to other etc. I also had a recurring dream about being chased by gangs of men and taking of like superman and then flying around the clouds having a great time. My landings were more like an albatross though. I just kept falling and tumbling. It was so annoying. One morning while slightly awake but still dreaming, I, what seemed like a conscious decision, I decided to take control of my dream and nail the landing. I did. The dream never came back. I decided to try it on my nightmares as well. It wasn’t easy to get the same conditions again, being aware but still dreaming, but after a while it all fell into place and I shouted at my monsters. Those dreams disappeared too. Although I still wasn’t comfortable in the dark, my heart didn’t beat as fast when I made that journey down the long dark corridor. No magic mushrooms involved. I can’t place these events exactly but remember the feeling like it was yesterday.

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  • 55
    Michael 100 says:

    Phil, thanks, that’s a good video and it fills in the gaps that I missed in the interview this morning. A couple things jumped out:  1) making well people healthier — he spent a little more time talking about that in the radio interview; 2) that psychedelic substances are like sensual  amplifiers; 3) the way the experience can be reproduced with ritual and ceremonies. Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians, can relate to the intoxicating effect of the accouterments of the rituals — it’s not for nothing that those things were ubiquitous. I was thinking this afternoon about how European Christians used to mark the day — 6:00 am, noon, and 6:00 pm, marked with the angelus. People use to sing the Salve Regina to mark the end of the day. Weeks and seasons all had special significance. And, monks and nuns — their days were filled with ritual hour by hour.  I think when some atheists say they miss some aspects of religion, that’s what they are talking about.  Maybe some periodic (once or twice a year) LSD or magic mushrooms will substitute for sacraments. 

    Having said all that, I still say that we can be more effectively awed by great art, literature, music, science, mathematics— i.e. the magic of reality.  What Pollan is advocating smacks too much of religion for my taste. Pollan reminds me of Timothy Leary.  If those drugs have some effective medical use, that’s fine, but an escape from reality is not for me.  

    What are your thoughts, Laurie?

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  • I’m left behind here. I’m a dunce at drugs and cared nothing for them when they were readily available to my lifestyle. Pot in brownies or space cake produced startling and unpleasant effects. At a dinner party my bum caught fire and I didn’t want to stand up in case the flames spread. In Amsterdam I thought I’d had a stroke and was dying. The return journey to London was terrifying as criminals and terrorists sought to kill us at every turn. And these aren’t hallucinogens! Spliffs where the THC content was much more easily controlled made me gigglesome and quiet, whereas alcohol made me social and talkative and I was always eager to hear what I had to say.

    I’m not at all sure my brain could take the upset of major chemical reset. I love what my brain does. I am continually astonished by the inventiveness of my dreams*. Like Ollie they can be quite lucid and biddable at times. Delicious.

    ‘Shrooms I’ll leave for my dotage. Having done sterling service, I can give my brain over to science. I’ll take lots of notes….

    *Last night I was on a double decker bus driving along a rugged coast road and enormous waves came in and drowned me in a very splashy way up on the top deck. It was surprisingly un-alarming.

    The dreamed tidal wave in the magical Red Turtle is very like another dream of mine.

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  • Laurie, I am such a fan of Richard Holmes’ biographies. I pine for a rerun of my Eng. Lit classes with his kind of insights into the poetry.

    This seems to me to be what education should aspire to. Not hacked off pieces of literature (though purists might think at stands and falls on its ostensible merits) but words fully immersed in a cultural context responding to it and challenging it. Education needs to change from its quaint Victorian narrow categorisations to this more expansive understanding of the development of our own minds and cultures.

    So now I’m thinking of new “school” books written for kids, Science for English Students, say. Maybe a mashup of Richard Holmes and James Burke (he of Connections) and John Gribbin (The Fellowship and Science: A History.)

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  • 58
    Michael 100 says:

    Phil# 56   At the end of the day, I agree with you. In my opinion, those who want a mystical experience should return to Sancta Mater Ecclesia.  For everyone who had a mystical experience on LSD, there are probably tens of thousands who became hopeless drug addicts — in the same way that for every Christian mystic, there are tens of millions who are hopelessly deluded theists.  As I said before, reality beats mystical hallucinations any day — and, “reality is the only place you can get a good meal.” LOL!!

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  • Michael 100

    Of your list of three things above, number one was interesting and a learned a little something from that. Number two is pretty much my take on the psychedelic and non-psychedelic drug experience. Like you called it – sensual amplifiers. Your number three, the use of drugs in rituals did remind me of the old cultures with their shamans and all of their spiritual traditions. I liked Pollan’s point about how those powerful drugs were very respected for the effects they produced and the elders and the experienced of the tribe held them in reverence and respect. He explains that in the sixties and seventies here, there was no structure and guidance to their use and this probably lead to certain unfortunate consequences and plenty of bad trips. I noticed that he does speak positively of having a tripping “guide” who is not under the influence and who knows how to deflect bad trip imagery when it presents itself.

    The microdosing idea was interesting too and I wonder if this will end up having clinical benefits in the future. Note to self: Invest in the proper stocks when it goes public. 😉

    The whole ritual topic leaves me cold to tell the truth. One thing I hated about forced churchgoing of my youth was the grinding boredom of those church services. Same old blah blah and same old musical numbers, then pass the plate, then shake hands, then the stupid exit music, same dull Pastor walks down the aisle to front door, greeting on the way out and on the way home in the care make up some blah blah to prove I was paying attention. To be honest, watching the congregation move through those rituals with vacant smiles convinced me (in my shitty attitude teen years) that they were exceedingly stupid brainwashed sheep. I feel a little bit bad about that now.

    That was the Methodist church then but now when I have no choice but to sit through a wedding or funeral in the Catholic church I find it to be stifling superstition from the Middle Eastern iron age and can’t figure out how anyone can relate to that now. It actually makes me a little nervous to be in the presence of those bizarre rituals and the incense reeks havoc with my asthma. I’m not proud of this but those dullards who love that mindless ritual and dusty dull traditions really might benefit from a happy little trip with a light dose of one of those basically safe hallucinogens.

    The very reason I’m glad I got to dabble a bit in my twenties was for the very reason of sending my mind out of its predictable machinations.  It’s a way to think outside the box on overdrive. I place a high value on that particular talent/skill so I guess I see these drugs as enhancements to that ability.

    In the art world they say that kids have the freedom of mind to produce art that is unencumbered by the conventions and rules of adulthood and that by the time that kid hits art class in school and gets stuffed into the conventional techniques box, that freewheeling creativity gets squashed. It takes a lot to grab hold of it after that and harness the power of the rules free art inspiration. Drugs can help out with that.

    Having said all that, I still say that we can be more effectively awed by great art, literature, music, science, mathematics— i.e. the magic of reality.

    I will never pick a fight with you over that! I certainly do feel that awe without any enhancement at all.  My worldview is grounded in science and ethics and I’m lucky to be a member of the reality club!

    I think Pollan is brave to take on this topic in his book and brave to have given the hallucinogens a try. The whole topic of drug use is piled up sky high with stigma and irrational feelings and our drug laws reflect this chaos, unfortunately. Pollan strives for a new look at these drugs and an objective assessment to see if they have clinical use possibilities. I’m with him on that.

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  • Michael 100


    For everyone who had a mystical experience on LSD, there are probably tens of thousands who became hopeless drug addicts —

    Wait! what?  Noooo. Ok so this is one of those stigma based conclusions that is not data based thinking. None of those hallucinogens are addictive. Remember he explained that in the video? No pathway from hallucinogens to addiction. One caution is for anyone who could be vulnerable to psychotic breaks, of course but we do know which drugs have the potential to grab hold of a brain and hang on for dear life and which just don’t do that. The fact that the hallucinogens are NOT addictive is one of the factors that sends then down to the bottom of the harmfulness list. Not addictive and also no way to overdose on them. They cause very little harm to the individual, family and society, so -bottom of the list.

    Where they place on the list has nothing to do with how you personally feel about them. If you say, as you do, that you find you have no interest in that experience whatsoever then that’s your feeling about it and I support that one hundred percent.



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  • Phil

    I pine for a rerun of my Eng. Lit classes with his kind of insights into the poetry.

    Oh yes, that would’ve been wonderful. I can say the same for his biographical information on the Romantic era scientists. It would’ve been much more effective a lesson if we could’ve seen Davy, Banks, Herschel, and Mungo as the gifted and complex personalities that they were as described by Holmes in The Age of Wonder. The subtitle of that book being absolutely inspirational: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Wow! Now that really has the makings of a downright thrilling year of middle school science class!

    I’ve mentioned here before that I have a friend who is a science teacher in a private middle school here just North of Boston. It being a private school and not beholden to any public school curriculum, the staff decided that they would like to try a more holistic arrangement of their subject matter, if that is the correct term. So they arranged teachers into teams and coordinated the topics to be complementary. I thought this was wonderful and she tells me that the teachers were very inspired by it and the students really were too.

    For example, let’s use the book The Poisoner’s Handbook – Amazon description:

    A fascinating Jazz Age tale of chemistry and detection, poison and murder, The Poisoner’s Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten era. In early twentieth-century New York, poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime. Science had no place in the Tammany Hall-controlled coroner’s office, and corruption ran rampant. However, with the appointment of chief medical examiner Charles Norris in 1918, the poison game changed forever. Together with toxicologist Alexander Gettler, the duo set the justice system on fire with their trailblazing scientific detective work, triumphing over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice.

    This is really a cool book. So the History teacher deals with the prohibition era (the 20’s). Science takes up all of the cool chemistry involved in the creation of criminal forensic practice and also the side story of the crime of poisoning and the medical science all around that. English Lit could take the novels of that time and work it all in with a comprehensive presentation of that decade in American history. That book is a multitopic class all by itself! That sure beats the dry as dust history I had in middle school on this topic!

    That strategy is how autodidacts learn. Decades ago I took an interest in Renaissance Revival Victorian furniture. From that I had to learn about the Victorian era in England. Then on to the Pre-Rafaelite artists and William Morris and on and on. It’s all about the context!

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  • 65
    Michael 100 says:

    LauriB # 62 & 64. Thanks for the data. Sometimes I write too quickly and violate my own rule to know what I’m talking about. I need to remember what Robert Frost once wrote:  “… we learn from the forbidden fruit, for brains there is no substitute…”.  The Quandary.

    I finished  the Four Horsemen and will write about it next week.  

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  • 67
    Michael 100 says:

    The Four Horsemen, The Conversation that Sparked an Atheist Revolution.  Short answer is the book is well worth a read even if you’ve seen the video of the conversation between the four – Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. 

    The book consists of a Forward by Stephen Fry, and introductory essays by Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris.  The authors, as readers and contributors to this site are well aware, are prominent scholars who are taking the ideals of the Enlightenment to the next level, i.e., they are helping ordinary people (as opposed to scholars of the sciences and philosophy) understand that truth is found in science, and that morality is found in secular humanism, rather than in dogma promulgated ex cathedra whether by the Pope of Rome or by Ayatollahs and Imams or any other religious authority.  Steven Fry wrote: “The emperor had been parading about for centuries, and it was time someone pointed and reminded the world that he was naked.”
    In his artfully written Forward, Fry points out that we have all had conversations about the topics discussed in the main transcript, and that you don’t have to be a scholar to have opinions, but this book allows us to “listen” to four experts who have studied the subject and who have been publicly battered and battled for the opinions they express and the insights they share.  Fry introduced each of the Four and set the scene for the conversation that follows.  I enjoy reading text that forces me to look up words that I have not previously encountered.  Reading the Forward, I learned the meanings of words such as coleopterist, cynosure, diablerie, and coruscating.       

    Richard Dawkins’ essay is entitled: “The Hubris of Religion, the Humility of Science, and the intellectual and moral courage of Atheism.”  Professor Dawkins notes that although the conversation was among those who came to be known as the four horsemen, it could well have been joined by colleagues such as Ayaan Hirshi Ali, Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne, Michael Shermer, A.C. Grayling, and Dan Barker “among others.” Professor highlights the arrogance of religion, and the courageous search for truth by those who practice science and rationalism.  “Atheists have the intellectual courage to accept reality for what it is: wonderfully and shockingly explicable.”   

    Daniel Dennett’s essay, “Letting the Neighbours know,” highlights the importance of organizing.  He points out that some of your best friends may be atheists, but unless we know, it seems like we are all alone in our rejection of superstition: “There is strength in numbers, but much more strength when the numbers know roughly how numerous they are.”

    In his essay, “In Good Company,” Sam Harris points out the fallacy of believing in the omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent god – he uses a mosquito to illustrate his point, “dismantling whole libraries of theological hairsplitting and casuistry.”            

    On May 28, 2019, in #79 of the May Open Discussion thread, Alan4discussion wrote a post about “the religion of peace.”  This rang a bell for me, so I went back to the conversation transcript.  Toward the end of the evening, the conversation turned to the conflict in the Mid-East, and Hitchens noted the grave risk of a civilizational conflict.  He said:  I think we’ll be very lucky if we get through this conflict without a nuclear exchange. … I feel myself on the losing side politically and on the winning side intellectually.”  Continuing, he said:  … we’ve been … largely winning an argument that’s been neglected for too long … But in global terms I think we’re absolutely in a tiny, dwindling minority that’s going to be defeated by the forces of theocracy.”  Regarding how to deal with the “religion of peace,” Hitchens said: “I think it’s us plus the 82nd Airborne and the 101st [Airborne] who are the real fighters for secularism at the moment, the ones who are really fighting the main enemy … It’s only because of the willingness of the United States to combat and confront theocracy that we have a chance of beating it.  Our arguments are absolutely of no relevance.”   The conversation took place in 2007 and although we have survived to the middle of 2019, the danger of nuclear conflagration remains a real threat – See, The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg which was published in 2017.  I wonder what Steven Pinker would have contributed to the conversation had he been able to produce the charts, graphs, and statistics he used in his book, Enlightenment Now, showing that civilization, even in the most backward places, continues to make progress, sometimes slowly and despite occasional setbacks, toward the ideals of secular humanism.           

    The Forward and introductory essays are well worth the price of the book.  But its important that the original video has been transcribed and preserved in print.  I’m not a technophobe (I read the book in electronic format), but I’m always afraid that videos and computer programs will deteriorate or become inaccessible as technology advances – I remember all the VCR tapes I thought I’d watch forever, and I have fond memories of my first Commodore computer.  On the other hand, Mikhail Bulgakov told us – “manuscripts don’t burn” – so I’m glad that the conversation was transcribed and will be preserved for all time, available to people long after our current video technology has become obsolete.

    If you haven’t already, I recommend you buy the book, as Christopher used to say: “available at fine book stores everywhere.” 

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  • 68
    Michael 100 says:

    RE:  #67 The first sentence of the second paragraph should read:

    The book consists of a Forward by Stephen Fry, and introductory essays by Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris, followed by a transcript of the Four Horsemen video.

    One day I’ll post something that doesn’t need to be corrected.

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  • For hundreds of years it was common sense: women were the inferior sex. Their bodies were weaker, their minds feebler, their role subservient. No less a scientist than Charles Darwin asserted that women were at a lower stage of evolution, and for decades, scientists—most of them male, of course—claimed to find evidence to support this.Whether looking at intelligence or emotion, cognition or behavior, science has continued to tell us that men and women are fundamentally different. Biologists claim that women are better suited to raising families or are, more gently, uniquely empathetic. Men, on the other hand, continue to be described as excelling at tasks that require logic, spatial reasoning, and motor skills. But a huge wave of research is now revealing an alternative version of what we thought we knew. The new woman revealed by this scientific data is as strong, strategic, and smart as anyone else.In Inferior, acclaimed science writer Angela Saini weaves together a fascinating—and sorely necessary—new science of women. As Saini takes readers on a journey to uncover science’s failure to understand women, she finds that we’re still living with the legacy of an establishment that’s just beginning to recover from centuries of entrenched exclusion and prejudice. Sexist assumptions are stubbornly persistent: even in recent years, researchers have insisted that women are choosy and monogamous while men are naturally promiscuous, or that the way men’s and women’s brains are wired confirms long-discredited gender stereotypes.

    [Link removed by moderator]

  • Hi Flavia,


    Thanks for this. You might be interested in comment #9 in this thread. I think Saini’s book is most important.

    I think the claim of women as less evolved is a little unfair to lay at Darwin’s door. I didn’t take Saini to be saying quite that, merely evolved in a definitive “complementary” way, that nevertheless was taken to be inferior.


    On BBC R4 yesterday was a great program on Motherhood and the ideal of the primacy and innateness of mother-child bonds.

    The evidenced view promoted was that that sentimental view of motherhood existed not at all in the middle ages. Children were raised almost as high grade livestock and just another task handled by busy women weaving or tending closer in livestock. In the eighteenth century attitudes to children started to be elevated. They became doted on and invested in and through Regency and Victorian times the role of women became locked in as these primal caregivers with no longer time to be allowed out and have the bigger roles once possessed.

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  • Phil

    The evidenced view promoted was that that sentimental view of motherhood existed not at all in the middle ages. Children were raised almost as high grade livestock and just another task handled by busy women weaving or tending closer in livestock. 

    Indeed, this model can still be observed in traditional societies and undeveloped countries. The extended family living model utilizes grandmothers, cousins, aunts and others to attend to basic needs of the children of the family and to complete the chores and tasks of the household. Grandparents earn their keep and young parents are free to earn money with jobs and entrepreneurial pursuits. It eliminates the situation of a young inexperienced mother spending her day alone with an infant and young children with no help and no good advice.

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  • Laurie…


    from wiki on alloparenting


     In alloparenting communities, attachment theory suggest that the same sort of bond is shared between the child and multiple community members.[32] This has potential advantages for the child and the parents. The child has a diversified network of caregivers which can provide intimate emotional support.[33] The parent’s cost of child rearing goes down as well as the emotional cost and cost of tangible resources. According to The US National Library of Medicine, alloparenting has proven to activate portions of the brain that are correlated with decreasing stress levels.[34]


    A spot of alloparenting might give US kids in hyper religious homes a little relief…

  • Hi, I’m new to the foundation.

    I’ve been for a long time thinking of reading something by Dawkins, but what should I read first: The selfish gene or the God delusion?

    Thanks! Looking forward to reading this genious!

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  • Hi Alex, and welcome!

    The Selfish Gene is more science-based, and The God Delusion is more social-based. The one you choose first, I suppose, would depend on which appeals to you more for reading: science or culture. Brief Candle in the Dark tends to combine them both, rather elegantly.

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  • Hi Alex. Welcome.


    Whatever you read it would be lovely to hear what you think back here.


    The Selfish Gene in 1976 was transformative for me when it came out. It led me to see how, though they can only act in their own interest, genes can lead us to empathy and even altruism by working through kin and as-if-kin. Further, in illustrating how we can take a more general perspective on replicators like genes we might begin to achieve an understanding of culture and cultural evolution.

    This all became an essential platform for banishing any need for looking outside of our biological and cultural selves to account for our unique and slowly progressing morality. Now others will point you to still other Dawkins’ books, perhaps better written, (he is a great stylist and storyteller and decidedly evocative and stirring in his imagery) but this is still the start of it all for me.

    Dr Johnathan Miller set me on course for actively challenging the mind forged manacles of religion. The God Delusion gave me many new thinking tools to identify its particular negative influences. RD certainly did a lot to give New Atheists (how we struggled with the name… It was going to be Brights!!!) their first toolkit to disassemble the increasingly elaborate religious arguments as disbelief slowly spread.

    Richard and his writing may well be key to the religious defensive backlash we see enacted in the USA at the moment, but that single injection of reason and its insistence as the substrate for public life where all can engage each other on a level field, will yet prevail. The young lead the way, having been given the vocabulary needed for a full and satisfying secular life.

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  • Hi, Vicky and Phil!

    So great to read all these responses! I’m already in love with this community… So much to learn from all of you… Can’t wait!

    Following what Vicky said I’m going to read the selfish gene first, as what I normally consume is physics dissemination books. Even though, I really want to dig into the atheist point of view RD has in the god delusion since I am a big fan of Friederich Nietzsche and his thought in this subject.

    Thanks everyone! And please excuse me for my bad English, I’m from Spain!

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  • This isn’t a recommendation – it’s an anti-recommendation, in fact – but Last Days in Old Europe: Trieste ’79, Vienna ’85, Prague ’89 by Richard Bassett has left me with thoughts whirling round my head, albeit almost certainly not the ones the author intended.       

    Richard Bassett is a graduate of Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute of Art who went on to become foreign correspondent for The Times, so it’s not surprising that he writes beautifully – it was this that kept me reading, long after reading had become a mostly irritating experience. 

    But even though his focus is ostensibly Central Europe in the decade or so before the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the book dwells far more on a much older Europe: the Europe of the Hapsburgs before and during World War I. And the reason for this is that his contacts – in the Trieste and Vienna sections, at least – were almost all aged scions of those ancient aristocracies who still hankered after the grand old ways and whose thoughts were far more occupied with the glories of the past than the realities of the present. 

    How is it possible, you might ask, for an inquisitive and intelligent young man just setting out in life to seemingly encounter no one but countesses and princes and dukes and barons and even a former empress, and to be instantly taken to their bosoms (and given accommodation in their palaces!) and let into their innermost thoughts? How is it that he instantly makes close personal friendships with the entire diplomatic corps at every British Embassy across the continent? Or every senior British army officer? How is it possible that this young man spent so many years travelling without apparently ever having an encounter worth mentioning with anyone more “ordinary” than the professional musicians of the Ljubljana city orchestra?

    He doesn’t spell out the answer (he doesn’t even think to ask the question), but it positively bursts through the pages all the same. The answer is: The Establishment.

    The reader learns next to nothing about what it was really like to live in any of the Central European countries (West or East) before 1989; but a great deal about the workings of the Old Boy network.

    The key to it all (in his case) is Cambridge: the “right” friends made at Cambridge who were only too eager to send him off on his travels with introductions to the “right” people all across Europe, people who, in turn, were only too happy to take him in instantly simply on the basis of those introductions and who could then be name-dropped as a means of making more and more contacts in those same circles. 

    Conservatives supposedly set great store by self-reliance, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, independence, earning success through hard work and diligence. Yet this glimpse into a deeply c-C-onservative world clearly reveals the opposite. Self-reliance is for the plebs. Among themselves they operate the most extraordinary pool of contacts, hospitality, promotion, generosity and support, a pool to which merely being “the right kind of person” gives you immediate and unquestioned access. 

    The irony is that, applied to society at large, the idea of mutual support, shared burdens, shared benefits, unquestioning generosity, wholehearted help in fulfilling ambitions and ascending the ladder etc. is what such people are notoriously against. Applied to anyone but themselves, such mutuality is degenerate, harmful; it fosters laziness and delinquency and is thoroughly bad for both individuals and society at large. Mutuality is a dangerous drug that only the wealthy, the noble and the powerful can handle. And the reason is clear, of course: c-C-onservatives are all about preserving (and extending) power and wealth and status in their own hands. Their only interest is their own class, and they dislike, despise and fear the rest of us. And their insistence on the virtues of self-reliance is merely an excuse not to extend their generosity and support (or even interest) to anyone beyond themselves.

    You might think the faded aristocrats Bassett writes about would have been wary of welcoming a complete stranger into their palatial homes merely on the basis of an introduction from someone they themselves probably only knew from a distance. But this in itself illustrates how hermetically sealed this world of privilege really is: because the “right people” will only ever recommend “the right people” – there really is no danger that a member of the clique might think of opening its doors to anyone less than “one of us”.

    What made me seethe when reading this book was the realisation that, despite the ostensible subject matter, I was actually getting an insight into how wealth and power and influence still operate today. The princes, counts and empresses of yesteryear have mostly been replaced by corporate billionaires, hedge fund managers and press barons, but the Support Network For The Already Rich And Privileged remains as strong as ever. And both the UK and the US are totally in their grip and it’s hard to see how we’ll ever be able to break free. 

    The book improves in the last section, Prague ’89, which charts the collapse of the Soviet bloc, since he is at long last more interested in the events around him than in who he drank champagne with in the early hours. Other than that, it is far less an insight into the last decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall than it is into the mindset of affable, charming, unquestioning, complacent privilege.

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  • 80
    Michael 100 says:

    The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle. 

    Since I’ve been posting and reading on this site, I have frequently encountered Hoyle’s name, mostly because I was not heretofore aware of his contributions. When I read Professor Dawkins’ essay in The Four Horsemen, there was Hoyle again, so I went to my electronic book store where it was available. (I keep hearing Christopher Hitchens say “available in fine bookstores everywhere.”)

    In the book’s forward, Geoffrey Hoyle explained that his father decided to write science fiction during the Second World War because of his impression that the genre was devoid of any real science.  Geoffrey succinctly describes the plot: “the novel The Black Cloud (1957) in which a molecular cloud approaches the Earth to recharge itself with energy from the Sun.”  Professor Dawkins writes that it is: “one of the best science-fiction novels I have ever read (despite its obnoxious hero), does what good science fiction should: while entertaining, it informs and widens thought about real science.”  I could not resist that recommendation, and I was not disappointed.  I won’t attempt to summarize the story which would only spoil it for other readers. Nevertheless, I have a few impressions I think I can safely share. 

    The first thing that jumps out is the blatant sexism. I had to keep reminding myself that 1957 was a long time ago and attitudes on a host of issues were so much different then what we encounter now — hopefully.  The first thing I noticed was that, with two exceptions, all of Kingsley’s (the main character) colleagues were male, with the exception of “Greta Johannsen of Oslo and … Mlle. Yvette Hedelfort of the University of Clermont-Ferrand, these being Kingsley’s only female correspondents.”  Most of the time the other female characters were referred to as girls, although men are sometimes referred to as boys.  Early in the story, Kingsley was at a party where he met “a pretty dark girl”, and “a handsome fair woman” who spoke in “a low, husky much cultivated voice,” and thereafter referred to as the voice or Husky Voice. Most women,throughout the novel were relegated to tasks such as typing, housekeeping, cooking, or making coffee.  Of course, all of the politicians were men.  At one point Kingsley exclaims:  “Preserve me from the obtuseness of women!”  The sexism was so thick that it was frequently a distraction.  

    Likewise, Kingsley’s attitude toward one of the male characters — Joe, a grounds keeper — was, shall we say “primitive”?  Joe had difficulty reading and writing, so it was assumed that he had “a somewhat remarkable slowness of mind,” but was never “down in the dumps,” and who was accomplished at skittles and darts.  I suspect that in 1957 low IQ was the only explanation considered for difficulty reading and writing. 

    I became aware of Hoyle when it was pointed out to me that it was he who pejoratively coined the term “Big Bang.” See # 116, October 2018.  In the novel, at one point the visitor was explaining its origins when, “… Kingsley and Marlowe exchanged a glance as if to say: ‘Oh-ho, there we go. That’s one in the eye for the exploding-universe boys’.”

    The subject of religion came up just before the visitor left the solar system, and I assume the conclusion reflects Hoyle’s understanding. The visitor found human conventional religion to be:

    “… illogical in its attempt to conceive of entities lying outside the Universe. Since the Universe comprises everything, it is evident that nothing can lie outside it. The idea of a ‘god’ creating the Universe is a mechanistic absurdity clearly derived from the making of machines by men. I take it that we are in agreement about all this.  … Yet many mysterious questions remain. Probably you have wondered whether a larger-scale intelligence than your own exists. Now you know that it does. In a like fashion I ponder on the existence of a larger-scale intelligence than myself. There is none within the Galaxy, and none within other galaxies so far as I am yet aware. Yet there is strong evidence, I feel, that such an intelligence does play an overwhelming part in our existence. Otherwise how is it decided how matter shall behave? How are your laws of physics determined? Why those laws and no others? … These problems are of outstanding difficulty, so difficult that I have not been able to solve them. What is clear however is that such an intelligence, if it exists, cannot be spatially or temporally limited in any way.”

    It would have been interesting to overhear a conversation between Hoyle and Victor Stegner.  

    Several times when I was reading the novel, I thought to myself that it might have read better if Hoyle had hired a professional writer to rewrite his manuscript. The story was very good and the science was state-of-the-art, cutting-edge.  The prose, on the other hand, was often somewhat amateurish, in my expert opinion (LOL).  For example, Hoyle described what would happen if the sun was blocked out for a significant period of time—either the planet would freeze or boil away. However compared to Daniel Ellsberg’s descriptions in his book, The Doomsday Machine, Hoyle’s lacked the urgency one would expect.

    When I read a novel like this, I see the time dimension twisted into a sort of pretzel shape.  Hoyle wrote it in 1957, 62 years ago.  Hoyle placed the events in 1964, narrated by someone in 2020.  In 1957, the space race was just beginning and it would not be until John F. Kennedy’s election that the possibility of sending humans to the moon was even considered, at least by the population at large.  Computers were only beginning to come into existence, and used cathode ray tubes. Racial segregation was legally enforced throughout much of the United States, and accepted as fact in the rest of the country. The US involvement in South East Asia was just beginning. The sexism expressed was considered normal, at least by men.  In another 62 years, it will be 2081.  I think it’s safe to predict that unless we obliterate ourselves in a nuclear war, or by a climate catastrophe, we will make more progress than we did in the previous 62 years — I base that opinion on what I learned from Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. 

    All in all, it was an entertaining speculation about what would happen if humans are ever able to communicate with an extra terrestrial intelligence.

  • 81
    Michael 100 says:


    “THE Russian Revolution is one of the great heroic events of the world’s history,” is the opening line of the preface to this work, written after a visit to Soviet Union from May 11 to June 16, 1920.  I was interested to read this work because I have always understood that the U.S. labor movement, like the labor movements in Europe and elsewhere, especially in the early decades of the 20th century, post The Great War took inspiration from the revolution in Russia. Many of the organizers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were openly communist, and many more were secretly so.  I believe that the US civil rights movement also owes a debt to the inspiration of the Revolution.  After James Cannon and his comrades founded the Trotskyist Socialist Worker Party, local unions as well as working class families were often divided along party lines — CPUSA vs SWP, later The Spartacist League.  Trotsky himself, while exiled in Mexico, provided guidance to the 1934 Teamster strike in Minneapolis, and those same workers provided him with body guards in the unsuccessful attempt to protect him from Stalin.  (See, e.g., Trotsky Downfall of a Revolutionary, by Bertrand Patenaude, and a series of books by Farrell Dobbs about the strike.)  As a former union member, I have always agreed with Russell’s statement:  “Bolshevism deserves the gratitude and admiration of all the progressive part of mankind.” 

    The book is divided into parts —Part I. The present conditions in Russia; and Part II. Bolshevik Theory.  I just finished Part I.

    Russell continually compares Bolshevism with religion. Yes, many of the Russians, especially at the time of the Revolution were very superstitious, but Russell kept returning to the theme of Bolshevik religion throughout the part.  At first I was puzzled but by the end of the Part’s 9 chapters, something clicked and I began to have a different understanding of what he was talking about, and about  the difference between the Stalinists and Trotskyists I knew during my labor union days.

    Russell writes:

    “By a religion I mean a set of beliefs held as dogmas, dominating the conduct of life, going beyond or contrary to evidence, and inculcated by methods which are emotional or authoritarian, not intellectual. By this definition, Bolshevism is a religion: that its dogmas go beyond or contrary to evidence, I shall try to prove in what follows. Those who accept Bolshevism become impervious to scientific evidence, and commit intellectual suicide. Even if all the doctrines of Bolshevism were true, this would still be the case, since no unbiased examination of them is tolerated. One who believes, as I do, that the free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism, as much as to the Church of Rome.”

    In my estimation, that quote describes, to a tee, the American Stalinist communists I knew.  They would mindlessly parrot the party line that the Revolution was a glorious success, the envy of the world’s working classes, soon destined to crush capitalism.  They were to Communism what Pentecostals are to Christianity. While they were often effective organizers, I never thought they were very bright, nor were they were effective consciousness raisers.  I’m not certain how they reacted when the Soviet Union collapsed, but I suspect they felt embarrassingly defeated.
    On the other hand, Trotskyists I knew were more intellectual.  Keep in mind that Trotsky didn’t join the Bolsheviks until the revolution was well under way, when Lenin expounded positions Trotsky felt were correct.  He was also one of Stalin’s first victims. Trotskyists I knew could always be found with a book under their nose, and they were great conversationalists because they knew what they were talking about. Rather than ignoring the failures of the Stalinist government, the Trotskyists agitated for political reform within the Soviet Union so that power could be restored to the workers in Russia and taken by workers in the rest of the world as well.  While they were more intellectual, the Trotskyists appealed to workers such as teamsters, coal miners, auto workers and other heavy industries — I think because the Trotskyists didn’t live in a dream world. In the closing days of the Soviet Union, the Trotskyists saw the battle for Afghanistan as the make or break moment for the revolution, and they were correct.  I remember the slogan: “The Defense of the Soviet Union Begins in Afghanistan.” At the time, the Trotskyist literature accurately described the Afghan fundamentalists that the Soviets were fighting, and they predicted that unless those fundamentalists were crushed, they would wreck havoc for decades to come — its 2019 and were still fighting them. Remember during the Four Horsemen conversation, Christopher Hitchens, noted that the real fight with religion was being waged by the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions of the U.S Army.  I think the others at the table may have looked askance at him, but every old Trotskyist knew exactly what Christopher was talking about — had those divisions joined forces with the Red Army in the late 1970s, the Taliban would be a thing of the past, and the Soviet Union may have survived, but alas!

    Who can doubt the insight and genius of Bertrand Russell.

  • 82
    Michael 100 says:


    In #81 I discussed Part one of the book entitled The Present Condition of Russia.  Part two is entitled Bolshevik Theory and is written in seven chapters. 

    In Chapter I, Russell notes that Marx’ materialistic conception of history is premised on the theory that all mass-phenomena of history are determined by economic motives.  Materialism also means that all mental occurrences are really physical, or at least have physical causes.  Throughout this part of the book, Russell emphasizes the role played by industrialism both in Russia and in the rest of the developed world.  He writes: “It is industrialism, rather than the arguments of Darwinians and Biblical critics, that has led to the decay of religious belief, in the urban working class.  At the same time, industrialism has revived religious belief among the rich.”  Russell takes issue with the idea that economics is the only factor motivating historical events.  Other factors include nationalism, religion and the desire for power – factors which he says cut across pure economic motives.
    In Chapter II, Russell argues that political events are determined by the interaction of material conditions and human passions (acquisitiveness, vanity, rivalry, and love of power).
    In Chapters III & IV, Russell takes issue with the Bolshevik criticism of parliamentary democracy as a means of achieving Socialism.  The Bolsheviks assumed that Communism was the desired state of affairs – a position with which I think Russell would agree, but he disagrees with the premise that it must be forced upon the population at the point of a bayonet and achieved only by means of armed conflict.  It was noted that because the majority of people are indifferent to politics, minorities have a disproportionate influence on events in which the majority acquiesces.  Russell argued that in a democratic and politically educated country, an armed revolution would have no chance of success unless the revolutionaries had the support of at least enough of the population to win an election.  Russell noted that he rejected Bolshevism for two reasons:  1) the price of revolution, in terms of life and suffering, is too high; and 2) the result would not be what the Bolsheviks profess to desire, that is, the revolutionaries are not willing to give up the power and privilege gained during the struggle.

    In Chapter V, Russell asks whether it’s possible to effect fundamental economic reform by means other than those used by the Bolsheviks.  Russell saw the chief evils of the present system to be inequality of wealth and inequality of power.  Inequality of wealth did not seem to be “a very grave evil.  If everybody had enough, the fact that some have more than enough would be unimportant.”  A graver evil is the uneven distribution of power.  “Wherever … labor is too weak or too disorganized to protect itself, appalling cruelties are practiced for private profit.”  “Only peace and a long period of gradual improvement can bring [equality of power] about.”

    In Chapter VI, Russell asks why Russian Communism has failed – keep in mind that this was written in 1920, only three years after the beginning of the Bolsheviks seizing power.  The most elementary failure was the inability of the Bolsheviks to feed the population.  Because of a failure of industry there were no goods available to induce the peasants to produce food.  Russell noted an extraordinarily complete collapse of industry.  “The failure of the whole industrial side of the national economy, including transport, is at the bottom of the other failures of the Soviet Government … If industry had been prosperous, the peasants could have had clothes and agricultural machinery, for which they would have willingly parted with enough food for the needs of the towns.”  Russell emphasizes, repeatedly, that all that was bad in Russia was “traceable to the collapse of industry,” which was never highly developed before the revolution, and the blockade left Russia powerless to replace equipment warn out during the war.  The war resulted in a loss of skilled workers which rendered the factories even more inefficient.

    Russell begins Chapter VII: “The fundamental ideas of Communism are by no means impracticable, and would, if realized, add immeasurably to the well-being of mankind.”  Again, in this chapter, the importance of industry is emphasized.  Russell saw self-government in industry as the road to Communism.  Speaking of England, Russell wrote: “I do not doubt that the railways and the mines, after a little practice, could be run more efficiently by the workers, from the point of view of production, than they are at present by the capitalist.”  Contrary to the position of the Bolsheviks, Russell argued: “If Communism is to have a fair chance, it must be inaugurated in a prosperous country … not readily moved by the arguments of hatred and universal upheaval which are employed by the Third International.”  Russell concluded: “Russian Communism may fail and go under, but Communism itself will not die.  And if hope rather than hatred inspires its advocates, it can be brought about without the universal cataclysm preached by Moscow.”

    I enjoyed both parts this book for a couple reasons.  First, it fit in nicely with my own experience in the American labor movement, including contact with highly class conscious and dedicated union leaders.  I think Russell’s observations are important today when a new generation of voters is considering ideas of progressive socialism.  As Steven Pinker pointed out, society seems to be on an upward projection implementing the ideas which began in with the Enlightenment.  Although the Bolshevik revolution did not succeed, it lasted longer than the Paris Commune, and I am convinced that the struggles of the American working class in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s would not have been as successful as they were in the absence of the Russian revolution.  Perhaps, we will see a resurgence of progressive ideas which will eliminate, at least to a significant degree, inequality of political power as well as inequality of wealth.  In any event, I think Russell’s observations are well worth remembering today.

  • Michael #82

    Speaking of England, Russell wrote: “I do not doubt that the railways and the mines, after a little practice, could be run more efficiently by the workers, from the point of view of production, than they are at present by the capitalist.”

    That is the only section of your critique that I do not understand, possibly even with which I disagree. I get that capitalists will always be shooting for the bottom line, workers be damned. But I seriously question whether the workers would be able to improve production. What is their motivation? Money? Altruism?

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  • 84
    Michael 100 says:

    Vicki #83. Great question!  My answer is based on my memory so if there is someone with better information, I will quickly stand corrected. 

    The communists were of the opinion that the means of production and natural resources should be controlled by and for the benefit of the working class. They wanted to establish worker councils – soviets in Russian. The councils would elect the management and have the ultimate decision making power, sort of like a legislature. 

    The motivation was the use of the profits generated by the industry or plant or mine. Rather than the profit being used for the exclusive benefit of the capitalist, the profits would be used for the workers and the community at large. The first priority would be higher wages and shorter hours. Workers and their families would be compensated in case of death, injuries or business downturns. Profits would be used for better housing, health care, etc.  The workers’ children would have the best schools. Workers would have access to first class libraries and cultural events. These are just a few things that leap to mind, I’m sure there are myriad of other things.

    In the United States and Europe, a lot of those ideas were adopted through social legislation and union contracts. Although bloody strikes were often necessary to accomplish social goals, I think many concessions were ultimately made by the capitalists to avoid a full scale revolution.  The western workers got the benefits of the Revolution, and the Russian workers got a deformed bureaucracy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as the Soviet Union became weaker in the 1970s, an assault on labor unions was mounted —remember The Committee for a Union Free Environment?  Today, workers get the short end of the stick at every turn.  

    We could also mention the role of fundamentalist religion in all this, it’s obviously a related topic. 

  • Worker owned businesses, cooperatives, have been a thing in the UK for possibly hundreds of years,  Certainly as a reaction to the 1834 Poor Laws when Church charities started to leverage moral discrimination between the deserving and undeserving poor, folk started to band together to sort themselves out. The Co-operative society, grew out of this. Even today we see worker owned businesses, like the John Lewis Partnership. The Basque region of Spain sports a large set of cooperative business ventures.

    wiki tells me…

     The turnover of the largest three hundred cooperatives in the world reached $2.2 trillion.

  • 86
    Michael 100 says:

    We too have some co-ops and “employee owned” businesses in the area of the U.S., where I live.  For example, I often shop at an employee owned grocery store chain that is located in several midwestern states.  I want to say there is a difference between these organizations and what the communists had in mind, but I’m not sure how to articulate it. 

  • Michael and Phil

    Ah, I think I understand a little better. I was picturing an industry-wide type of mob rule that devolved into Orwell’s Animal Farm. Individual business heirarchies make more sense. It leaves me with a few questions, though. For one, how would that play out with long-term investment vs pocketing the profits? And industries such as coal mining, where they need to go the way of the horse and buggy; but what miner would put the good of the whole above feeding his family? Same with automation in manufacturing–who would intentionally put himself out of a job?

    I like Bernie’s ideas of melding capitalism with more government oversight.

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  • 88
    Michael 100 says:

    Vicki:  Yesterday, thinking about these questions, I looked around a bit and found there was a debate among the revolutionaries on this very subject (if there was one thing they were good at, it was debating among themselves — ad nauseam).  

    In 1864, Karl Marx, in a speech to a meeting of the First International, praised the cooperative movement and called it “a great social experiment.”  On the other hand, in a pamphlet entitled Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxembourg, pointed out that workers forming a co-operative faced a contradiction of placing themselves in the role of a capitalist entrepreneur “…a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.”  In other words, it cannot be both fish and foul.  

    My impression of successful U.S. employee owned businesses and Co-ops, is that they, are simply another business model and don’t see themselves as socialist enterprises or experiments. I think Luxembourg would argue that until socialism is established worldwide — as opposed to in individual or isolated countries — workers will continue to be victimized by the market, exactly as you illustrate with your examples of coal mines and automation. 

    I think Bertrand Russell got it right when he rejected armed revolution in favor of a natural progression toward socialism, an example of which is the platform being advanced by Bernie Sanders and other progressive Democrats, as well as what has happened in Scandinavia.  I would say there is nothing wrong with successful corporations, but they should be highly regulated and highly taxed for the benefit of the entire community. As Russell pointed out, equality of power is more important than equality of income — Russell wrote that as long as everyone has enough, it’s not too harmful if some have more than enough.  I am offended, however, by obscene wealth possessed by the likes of Donald Trump.  Furthermore, when industries become obsolete, provision must be made to assist the affected workers so that no one is left to fend for themselves as we see in the American rust belt or agricultural areas.


  • But Rosa Luxemburg was screwy. Her logic ungrounded on how wealth was created.

    In her mind (though based on overwhelming evidence at the time) capitalism didn’t generate wealth but tricked it out of others like workers and exploited colonies. Most mainstream Marxists could see that this was not necessarily the case.

    There is nothing wrong with Capitalism in an economy permitted Marxian analysis  of a wider range of metrics comprising “The Good” to allow democracy the tools needed for a little dirigisme, long-term planning and social investment.

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  • 90
    Michael 100 says:

    Even in their own time, revolutionaries such as Luxembourg were not accepted by a majority of the workers, they could never win an election— even in Russia after the fall of the tsar.  This is a point Bertrand Russell makes in Bolshevism: Practice and Theory. I’ve always been fascinated by that period of history, but if the situation in Russia had not been such that that the Bolsheviks were able to seize power, I wonder what place in history the revolutionaries would hold — certainly their influence today is almost nonexistent.  I bet most people I know don’t even know who Rosa Luxembourg was.

    Now, I’m ready for another book by Victor Stegner.

  • One of the most eye-opening books I’ve read recently is Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics.

    It is an excellent, highly readable, fascinating introduction to geopolitics: the study of the way national and regional goals, priorities and ambitions are largely determined by geophysical factors such as mountains, rivers, ports, natural resources, etc.

    It devotes a chapter each to Russia, China, USA, Western Europe, Africa, Middle East, India & Pakistan, Korea & Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic. Personally, I found the chapters on Russia, China, and Korea & Japan both the most fascinating and the most enlightening, though the chapter on India & Pakistan was excellent too. As was the one on Africa!

    The whole book feels like essential reading for anyone seeking to understand international relations and global politics.

    And I see the kindle version is just £1.99 on the Amazon UK site.

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  • 93
    Michael 100 says:

    God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, by Victor J. Stenger
    This is the second book I’ve read by Dr. Stenger, see #34 above.  This one has a forward written by Dan Barker. The book provides an extensive review of western religion, beginning when the earliest hominids, including Neanderthals, began to think abstractly, ascribing animate agency to natural phenomena, through the Greek philosophers, medieval scholastics, and 20th and 21st century Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig.  Likewise, Stenger surveys scientific thinking beginning with the ancient Greeks,through the discoveries that lead to the standard model of particle physics.  The book is a comparison of the two ways of thinking.
    Those familiar with Stenger’s work know that he draws a clear line between science and religion.  He writes: “The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason … Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.”  Stenger rejects the notion that science and religion belong to non-overlapping magisteria.  On the contrary, he shows that all religious claims can, and have been, subjected to scientific testing, and that those claims never withstand scrutiny.  Likewise, he writes:   “Those who rely on observation and reason to provide an understanding of the world must stop viewing as harmless those who rely instead on superstition and the mythologies in ancient texts passed down from the childhood of our species.”
    Stenger points an accusatory finger at the triad of religion, antiscience, and extreme conservatism, and he writes: “This book is a call for scientists and other rationalists to join together to put a stop to those who insist they have some sacred right to decide what kind of society the rest of us must live in—for the sake of the future of the planet and the betterment of humankind.”
    I could go through the book, chapter by chapter, pulling out my favorite passages, but suffice it to say that the book lives up to the task stated in the subtitle, i.e. Stenger shows clearly the 
    incompatibility of science and religion. 
    Decades ago, I rejected any shred of religiosity, but it would have been so helpful to have had the assistance of writers like Stenger, Dawkins, Krause, etc, etc. — a sentiment expressed by Dan Barker in the forward. Stenger reinforces my idea that religion is a deeply ingrained pattern of delusional thinking that may have made sense when people thought the earth was the center of the cosmos.  The time has come, however, to end the grip of ignorance.  I would say that the book is a must-read for anyone who is newly coming to the understanding that reality is explainable in natural terms without the necessity of recourse to the supernatural.  And, the book is an excellent tool to be used by thinking people of all educational levels who want to want to contribute to the eradication or religion from the face of the earth.


  • Marco,


    How we mocked geography. Those who can do. Those who can’t teach. And those who can’t teach teach geography.

    Well Jared Diamond gave the lie first and now, bringing it up to date Tim Marshall.


    I’m getting so much out of this. Thanks.

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  • So glad, Phil! There are some books that quite simply give the reader a different lens through which to see the world – this, for me, was definitely one of them.

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  • Lion Feuchtwanger: The Oppermanns (original German title: Die Geschwister Oppermann)

    Exactly a month ago the Financial Times published an opinion piece about two novels written in the 1930s that should be sounding alarm bells in our current political predicament: Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns (

    I suspect Sinclair Lewis may be the better known author in the US and possibly also the UK, but Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns is absolutely devastating. Its account of Jewish persecution in Germany in 1932-1933 is shattering in its own right, of course, but reading it now, in the context of Trump and Bannon and the Alt-Right and Brexit and Farage and the Brexit Party, the echoes are nothing short of terrifying.

    I’d been aware of the echoes for a long time, of course – three years at least; but that was with the benefit of hindsight, the ability to look back on the history of the Nazi era, with the full knowledge of what it entailed. What makes The Oppermanns so extraordinary, and so extraordinarily shocking in our current context, is that it was written in 1933, at the very beginning of the Nazi era, before all the facts about it were known, before they’d all even become facts. It is set over the period of about a year, spanning a few months either side of the election that brought Hitler to power, and so it describes the events and arguments that took place immediately before the full catastrophe struck. This really drives home the similarities between what we are seeing in the UK now (Brexit, and Farage, and the Brexit Party, and the English Defence League, and the Trumpian lurch to the Right in the Conservative Party, and the rest of the far-right rabble) and what attentive Germans were seeing at the end of 1932, early 1933. And of course, Trump-watchers will recognise all of this too.

    I found myself highlighting passage after passage after passage, far too many to include here, but here are just a few, as a taster:

    ‘But that’s their strength, that they reject reason and simply appeal to instinct. It takes intelligence and strength of will to carry that through as consistently as these men do. The gentlemen understand their customer base as well as any good businessman. Their product is terrible, but it sells well. And their propaganda: first-class, I tell you. Don’t underestimate the Führer, Herr Hintze.’


    ‘Oh yes, you all have your excellent theories, you can all explain everything so cleverly, you know everything. The others – they know nothing at all, and they couldn’t give a damn if their theories are stupid and full of contradictions. But there’s one thing they do know: they know exactly what they want. And they’re doing something to get it. I’m telling you, Uncle Jacques, and you, Uncle Martin: they’ll do it and you’ll be the ones standing there like idiots.’


    What he’d learned from history was how astonishing it was that people who were threatened left it so late before attempting to get themselves to safety. Why, in heaven’s name, had so many French aristocrats been so slow-witted, why had they allowed themselves to be taken by surprise by the Revolution, when today every schoolboy knows from the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire that it must have been perfectly obvious what was going to happen decades before it actually did?


    ‘The only thing I know is that it is easy to release the barbarians, but very hard to rein them in again.’

    and finally:

    Everything the rulers of this Reich did, and everything they left undone, was absurdity and lies. What they said was a lie, what they left unsaid was a lie. They rose with lies, and lay down with lies. Lies were their order, lies were their law, lies their judgement, lies their German, lies their science, their justice, their creed. Lies were their nationalism, their socialism, lies their ethos and their passion. Lies were everything, and the only truth: their hate.

    I could go on and on, but one of fascinating things in the novel is how slow even Jewish Germans are to grasp the true scale of the approaching threat. Always the tendency to think it can’t happen here, that there are too many decent Germans to allow truly dreadful acts of violence and persecution to take place, always the trust in the protection supposedly afforded by education, literature, civilisation, the clinging to the belief that yes, some bad things have happened already but they’re all one-offs, exceptions.

    To finish, I’d just say that The Oppermanns works far better when viewed as a powerful fictionalised contemporary source than as a work of literature. Feuchtwanger saw very early on what Nazi rule meant and was in a great hurry to document events. It was originally written as three long, only loosely connected novellas, but he then put them all together in a hurry to form The Oppermanns, and it does feel bitty and rushed in places. The characterisation isn’t great, and there are quite a few loose ends, but he wasn’t writing it to be a great novel: he was writing it as a warning, and a witness statement.

    And one final, final point, just as an aside: the book was immediately translated into English (though the quotes above aren’t taken from the English version), and at the request of British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald a British film company asked Feuchtwanger to turn it into a film script, which he did, in just two months. But in that time, the policy of the UK government towards Hitler had changed, and it was no longer willing to risk offending him. And there’s an echo there too, isn’t there?

  • Always the tendency to think it can’t happen here, that there are too many decent Germans to allow truly dreadful acts of violence and persecution to take place, always the trust in the protection supposedly afforded by education, literature, civilisation, the clinging to the belief that yes, some bad things have happened already but they’re all one-offs, exceptions.

    I forgot to mention: Feuchtwanger is very good at showing how everyday life still seems to carry on as normal for those who cannot, or do not wish to, see the horror: the buses still run, the shops are still open, people still go to work … outwardly, nothing has changed: it’s easy to pretend that nothing else has changed either, not least because the atrocities are covered up and speaking of them is dangerous.

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  • 98
    Michael 100 says:

    Marco, that’s a great lead. Did you, by chance, find an electronic version?  I can find it in audio format and print, but not electronic – which is my first choice. Right now, I’m reading Koestler’s Dialogue With Death, but The Oppermanns will definitely be the next in line.

    Your observation in #97 reminded me of something I just read in Dialogue.  Koestler was being transported from Malaga to Seville, and on the journey the two civil guards in whose custody he was, showed him some kindness.  Remarking on human nature, Koestler wrote:

    “They were not exceptions; they were two out of twenty-five million for the most part kindly Spaniards. Had they been given orders, before we made friends on the journey, to strike me dead or to shoot me, they would have done so with complete sang-froid. Had they been fellow prisoners, they would have shared their last cigarette with me. Had I, on the other hand, made the railway journey with the two unfriendly gorillas, we would most likely have parted with the same cordial feelings.”

    In any event, I agree that the literature from that period is so very important today. I think we are the target audience for authors like Feuchtwanger and Koestler, not to mention the great literature that came out of the Soviet era. Their contemporaries knew what they were writing about. It’s we, the children of the future, they were trying to warn, and we would do well to heed their warnings. Thanks for the lead.

  • Hi Phil

    I’ve finally bumped Angela Saini’s “Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong” up on my reading list, and it’s in the #2 slot. 

    In the meantime, I’ve added a new one to my down-the-road list: EO Wilson’s “Genesis: The Deep Origin of Species.” The interview looked promising…


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  • 106
    Michael 100 says:

    This is about three books: Dialogue with Death: The Journal of a Prisoner of the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War by Arthur Koestler; Scum of the Earth, also by Koestler, and The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger (see Marco’s excellent review in #96 above).
    As the title implies, the looming possibility of death permeates every page of Dialogue with Death.  Koestler noted that eighty per cent of people about whom he wrote were dead, and “[t]hose who survived went on to pursue their own dialogues with death in the mist of the European Apocalypse, to which Spain had been the prelude.”  Koestler was a correspondent for a British newspaper covering the Spanish Civil War.  In January 1937, Koestler went to cover a long-planned offensive by the nationalists (Franco’s fascist forces and their Italian and German allies) in the city of Malaga.  Before his arrest, Koestler found himself in the home of a 73-year-old Scottish zoologist, Sir Peter Chalmers-Mitchell.  Koestler and Sir Peter were arrested the same day – Sir Peter, by the way survived and wrote a book entitled My House in Málaga, published in 1938.”  (

    Although he was in prison for about three months, every second seemed like an eternity and Koestler was constantly reminded that he was under a sentence of death.  He never knew, from one minute to the next, when he might be called before the firing squad.  In the early hours of the morning, he would hear the warders and a priest come to the doors of adjoining cells and lead men to be executed.  Koestler wrote:

    During the night of April 13 to 14 seventeen men were shot … Nicolas (an obscure little soldier of the Spanish Republic to whom the book is dedicated) was among them. … [T]he critical time was between midnight and two o’clock in the morning. … In the black silence of the prison, charged with the nightmarish dreams of thirteen hundred sleeping men, I heard the murmured prayer of the priest and the ringing of the sanctus bell.  Then a cell door, the third to the left of mine, was opened, and a name was called out.  “Que?” — What is the matter? Asked a sleepy voice, and the priest’s voice grew clearer and the bell rang louder.  Now the drowsy man in his cell understood.  At first he only groaned; then in a dull voice he called for help: “Socorro, Socorro.”  “Hombre, there’s no help for you,” said the warder who accompanied the priest.  He said this neither in a hostile nor in a friendly tone; it was simply a statement of fact.  For a moment the man who was about to die was silent; the warder’s quiet, sober manner puzzled him. And then he began to laugh.  He kept slapping his knees with his hands, and his laughter was quiet and subdued, full of little gasps and hickcoughs.  “you are only pretending,” he said to the priest.  “I knew at once that you were only pretending.”  “Hombre, this is no pretence,” said the warder in the same dry tone as before.  They marched him off.  I heard him shouting outside. But the sound of the shots came only a few minutes later.  In the meantime the priest and the warder had opened the door of the next cell; it was No. 42, the second to my left. …  They came to my cell and the priest fumbled at the bolt.  I could see him through the spy-hole.  … No, not this one,” said the warder.  They went to the next cell.  He, too, was prepared.  He asked no questions.  While the priest prayed, he began in a low voice to sing the “Marseillaise.”  But after a few bars his voice broke and he too sobbed.  They marched him off.  And then there was silence again.

    That happened night after night.  Then, on Wednesday, May 12, Koestler was told to pack his things, that he was going to be released.  He put his toothbrush in his pocket, grabbed some papers, said good bye to comrades and left the prison.  Koestler later learned that his release was the result of a prisoner exchange arranged by the British government.

    Next, I read Scum of the Earth. 

    After he left Spain, Koestler was living in Roquebilliere, a French village, with British sculptor Daphne Hardy, who he refers to as “G”.  At the outbreak of the World War II, Koestler did his best to get back to England, where he was a permanent resident, so he could join the British military.  Instead, he was imprisoned in France, and was kept in Vernet – the venue for a good portion of the book – until he was able to assume a false identity and join one of the French foreign legions.  Eventually he was able to escape from France and made his way back to England where he joined the British Army and was assigned to the Ministry of Information, although for a time he was kept in Pentonville prison.
    In August 1940, toward the end of his journey through France, in the city of Marseilles, Koestler met up with some of his comrades from Germany, including “Dr. Breitscheid, German Minister of the Interior in the legendary days of the Weimar Republic.”  These comrades were able to tell Koestler news of those who had escaped, were killed, or who had committed suicide.  He learned: “Feuchtwanger had succeeded in getting to America in some adventurous way.”  That passage, which, but for Marco’s remarks in #96 may have passed unnoticed, jumped out at me.  Elsewhere in the book, Koestler mentions being friends with Lion Feuchtwanger.  By the way, I found it interesting to look up as many of Koestler’s references as I can – so far, I haven’t been disappointed, Koestler doesn’t mention anything that cannot be verified with a few search inquiries on the internet. 

    As soon as I finished Scum of the earth, I began reading The Oppermanns, and am more than half way through the book now.  Suffice it to say that I agree with Marco that the Oppermanns is a great work of literature as well as warning we would be well advised to heed.

    I would say that these three books are excellent resources for anyone trying to understand the fascist insanity of the early and mid-20th century – a time still within living memory.  When I was reading Dialogue with Death, it occurred to me that if my grandparents had not immigrated to the United States so that in 1919 my father had been born in Italy rather than the USA, one of two possibilities would have been likely:  1) he could have been one of the Italian soldiers fighting to overthrow the Spanish Republic; or 2) like Leo Viliani (Mario, in Scum of the Earth), he might have joined the antifascist underground, and may have been one of Koestler’s comrades.  Koestler, Feuchtwanger, and others did their best to warn us, but here we are, about to enter the third decade of the 21st century, and fascism seems to be reasserting a grip across the globe.  Koestler had found himself in prison in Spain, France and England – never accused of a criminal offence.  At one point in Scum of the Earth, he compared his situation to that of Joseph K, in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, who labored under a mysterious indictment, but struggled in vein to find out the nature of the charges against him.  Koestler writes: “The High Court which Kafka’s hero is unable to find is his own conscience. … Perhaps I was really guilty, I and my like; perhaps our guilt was the past, the guilt of having foreseen the catastrophe and yet failed to open the eyes of the blind.”

    See also, Madeleine Albright’s book, Fascism, A Warning.  We are a long way from being out of the proverbial woods. 

  • Michael #106

    Great overview there, Michael – thank you.

    The only Koestler I’ve read is Darkness at Noon, which is one of the most shattering representations of Stalinist totalitarianism you could imagine. I’m currently reading another, an autobiographical work that I won’t go into here – suffice it to say, the non-fictional account entirely reinforces Koestler’s fictional account in Darkness at Noon, but Koestler’s version is very much better written and therefore very much more powerful.

    I had no idea Koestler and Lion Feuchtwanger were friends – it hadn’t even occurred to me that they might have moved in the same circles. How very interesting.

    I’m so glad you’re reading The Oppermanns and finding it worthwhile. Just to clarify, though: I actually don’t think it’s a great work of literature. It is astonishingly prescient in its account of Nazi atrocities and it is also shockingly relevant to everything we see around us in UK and US political life right now, and I definitely recommend it as an incredibly powerful lens through which to observe current events, but I don’t think it’s well written (with the exception of the story of the son, Berthold, where we really do get an emotional sense of the human dilemma and tragedy). Feuchtwanger originally intended it to be 3 novellas, only fairly loosely connected, but then changed his mind and threw them all together in a tearing hurry – the political crisis was such that he didn’t have the luxury of revising them or enhancing them very much: his aim wasn’t to impress or entertain with beautiful prose and a well constructed plot, but to jolt people awake and alert them to what was going on around them. He wrote it for political, campaigning, awareness purposes, not for literary ones. And to my mind, that shows! But I don’t say that to detract from it in any way: just to manage expectations. As a warning from history, and as confirmation that we are right to be alarmed at the warning bells we’re hearing all around us and of the need to take them with the utmost seriousness, it is really quite exceptional.

    Hope you continue to find the rest of it worthwhile. I think you will!

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  • 108
    Cairsley says:

    Two books that deserve to be mentioned in a bookclub on such a website as this are: Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus, both written by Richard C. Carrier as two volumes of one project to examine critically the historical evidence and probabilities relating to the existence in history of Jesus, known and revered among Christians as the Christ or long-awaited Messiah of the Jews. The first of these books, Proving History, prepares the ground for the direct examination of this question, by critiquing the lack of rigor in the discipline of history in general and highlighting the outright embarrassment into which Jesus studies in particular have descended in the last couple of decades. Dr Carrier proposes the use of Bayes’s theorem as the remedy for the lack of rigor in all too much historical reasoning, and this is the main objective of this first book. The second book, taking the methodological groundwork set out in the first for granted, surveys the evidence we have of Jesus, and one of the clearer conclusions arrived at in this book is that there is surprisingly little evidence, none of which is reliable, supporting the traditional notion that Jesus was a real man living in first-century Palestine. The evidence that does exist is shown to favor the notion that the divine-savior figure known as Jesus (Yehoshuah, meaning God saves) began as the object of worship in a Jewish mystery cult that arose, along the same lines as mystery cults that had arisen in other parts of the Graeco-Roman world during the intertestamental period in response to the same cultural pressures caused by the imposition of Macedonian, and later Roman, imperial power upon the tradition politico-religious structures of the various societies and nations included in what became imperial domains.

    For historians, the first book, Proving History, is the more interesting and for some the more provocative or upsetting. Bayes’s theorem is a mathematical formula, and mathematics is not traditionally associated with the methods used by historians. Indeed the suggestion that something like Bayes’s theorem should be used as a matter of course by historians in their work has been seen by some as downright feather-ruffling. But Dr Carrier argues well and repeatedly that Bayes’s theorem captures in a rigorously logical form the logic of probabilities that is at the core of all valid reasoning used intuitively and often implicitly by historians in their work. Pointing out how errors in assessments of probabilities have gone unnoticed and uncorrected in all to many cases, Dr Carrier shows with various examples how such reasoning can be dealt with more explicitly and clearly, so that the conclusions drawn are clearly entailed by the premises. Quite apart from showing how Bayes’s theorem can be used in history, the first two chapters of Proving History provide an excellent summary of traditional historical tools and methods, some of which are fortified by Bayes’s theorem and others shown by it to be of little or no use.

    The second book of the project, On the Historicity of Jesus, presents, with all the care and circumspection of good academic procedure, the cases for and against a historical Jesus, and, as already mentioned, the conclusion weighs rather on the side of an ahistorical or mythical Jesus. In this book, Bayes’s theorem is not in focus, but the logical framework set out in the first book is always in the background and referred to whenever probabilities are assessed and discussed. Thus the reader is treated in several parts of the book with clear examples of how probabilities are assessed in terms of Bayes’s theorem, how different possibilities can be compared and discussed, and how conclusions can be arrived at. After reading this book, a historian has no excuse for failing to see how the theorem can be integrated into his or her work to give it the advantages of a more objectively rigorous logical structure. On this basis, Dr Carrier deals with all the items cited as evidence for a historical Jesus, some of them at considerable length, with a confident command of the relevant material (manuscripts, dating, directions of influence, authorship, contexts, translations, and all such questions relating to scarce ancient evidence) and is able to show with considerable clarity the probabilities involved and which direction the odds favor. History, like any empirical study, is a matter of probabilities, and in ancient history, where hard evidence is rare and in many cases hard to interpret, the probabilities that one can arrive at do not always inspire confidence. But there are those who find history all the more fascinating for that very reason. The important thing is to keep to the facts, the evidence, and to maintain a rigorous control over one’s reasoning about the known facts, including the degrees of certainty with which they are known; which is made much easier and clearer by the use of Bayes’s theorem.

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  • 109
    Michael 100 says:

    Thanks Cairsley. In my opinion, Carrier puts the last nail in the coffin of Christianity— it pure myth without so much as a scintilla of historic truth. I’m interested in knowing if Carrier’s scholarship is as accurate as it seems to me, and I’m happy to read your thoughts.  

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  • 110
    Cairsley says:

    Michael #109

    When I first read Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus, I was mildly surprised to notice the gentleness and impartiality with which Dr Carrier presents his case against the historicity of Jesus in both books, giving alternative hypotheses equal consideration, as is required by the correct use of Bayes’s theorem. But the message he sends to his fellow historians, especially those who specialize in biblical history and Jesus studies, is a very clear challenge to their established conventional wisdom on the subject. I am now interested to follow how the academic history establishment responds to that challenge, as it must, for the challenge is based on a logical rigor not hitherto customary among historians, comprehensive in its use and examination of all the available evidence, and relentless in the thoroughness of its arguments. It may take a generation for the academy to come round to a consensus that Jesus was not a historical person. Ancient history is unlike natural science in that it has to work with scant evidence and can only aim to arrive at conclusions of reasonably high probability. The supernatural as a factor in history can of course, in the absence of any evidence in its support, be ruled out promptly, simply because it contravenes all of our background knowledge. But whether the Jesus traditions originated with a historical man preaching in first-century Palestine or with the mythical divine savior of a mystery cult or in some other manner is not so clear-cut a question to decide. It does not matter substantively what position we nonexperts prefer or favor on such a question, so long as we keep an open mind to what the experts, of whom Dr Carrier is one, are saying on the subject, especially as they approach a consensus. This may be some time off yet, given the revolutionary character of what Dr Carrier is proposing.

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  • Sometimes I read books on evolutionary biology. This time it was “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins, and I have to say, there are still some things I don’t understand at once. But it’s very interesting. I can say, I really find much more beauty in evolution, in nature, than in Koran or the stories about the prophets. The rainbow doesn’t become less a miracle just because of the fact that it’s not the creation of god. Just because of the fact that the science explains it all. I remember when I first read the truth about evolution, I was excited. And angry. Because I heard all the lies before.

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  • Milva,

    I haven’t read The Blind Watchmaker yet but if you have questions having to do with the material in that book I hope you will present those questions here.

    There are plenty of readers here who could explain difficult points for you to understand better. Some of us have studied science in university but others have not. Some of us are strong in one field of science and not in the others.

    So Milva, what will you read next?

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  • LaurieB

    Thank you, I meant that I don’t understand at once but I do it later. It’s like solving a problem 🙂

    But the question I have: what would you advice to read next? I have common knowledge about evolution and I read more about people than animals or plants. Also, I read it all in Russian, it’s easier 🙂 Some books and articles I read were written by Russian scientists, too.

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  • 114
    maria melo says:

    I m Just pondering discipline, otherwise I ll never complete any task. I  ll re_read the Selfish Gene and any recomended book of  The course Ethology by Roger Abrantes, and it s difficult to have free time as I say, but meanwhile I ve read the book, as a soap, Cat Daddy. Why am I delaying ? I need discipline,not temptation.

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  • Milva

    Have you read The Selfish Gene yet? I feel that Selfish Gene is the foundation book for all of the other books written by RD and other authors who write on this topic.

    After that, assuming you are female, I think you might be very interested to read something that will really get you thinking about our role in human reproduction in a very different way than what we were taught in the religious environment. How about a book by Sarah Baffer Hrdy titled Mother Nature, Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species.

    From the preface of that book Hrdy lists the questions that she considers in the writing of the book:

    1. What do we mean by “maternal instincts”? And have women “lost” them?

    2. If women instinctively love their babies, why have so many women across cultures and through history directly or indirectly contributed to their deaths? Why do so many mothers around the world discriminate among their own infants – for example, feeding a son but starving a daughter?

    3. Unlike other apes, humans have been selected to produce offspring that are helpless and dependent for so long a time that no woman living as our foraging ancestors did could hope to rear a family by herself. Yet paternal assistance was then, as now, far from certain. How could there have been selection on mothers to produce babies so far beyond their means to rear?

    4. Given that fathers share the same proportion of their genes with babies as mothers do, why didn’t fathers evolve to be more attentive to infant needs? Are there (as Charles Darwin also wondered) “latent instincts” for nurturing in males? And if so, when are they expressed?

    5. So far as babies are concerned, fathers range from caring to indifferent. Why then do virtually all men take such an intense interest in the reproductive affairs of women?

    6. And, finally, what is the bottom line on infant needs? Just why did these little creatures evolve to be so plump, engaging, and utterly adorable?

    Interesting questions, aren’t they? Have I tempted you to read more on the topic?

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  • Laurie #115

    Interesting questions, aren’t they? Have I tempted you to read more on the topic?

    I can’t answer for Milva, obviously, but you’ve certainly tempted me! 🙂

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  • I am currently reading The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – the queen of speculative fiction! The book is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale which has been adapted to an enthralling series that plays on Hulu.

    I’m a big fan of Atwood and the Handmaid’s Tale series has introduced her work to a whole new group of younger fans. The material in these books has become alarmingly true in America in the current situation. They are a cautionary tale of what happens in a liberal free society that allows their religious fundamentalists gain access to power. It soon becomes much less liberal and much less free and women bear the brunt of these restrictions, although men who are not alphas do suffer as well.

    Atwood does not shy away from directly pointing at Christian fundamentalism as the cause of the revolution and subsequent religious, fascist state that results from it. Every article we’ve had on this website for the past couple of years having to do with Trump & co. and their repulsive administration is mirrored in these two books by Atwood, our prophetess!

    If anyone is reading either Handmaid or Testament I’m happy to discuss them.

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  • LaurieB

    Wow, so tempting, really. I can agree to Marco!

    I didn’t read The Selfish Gene yet but I planned to do it.

    And of course I’m very interested in all that involves women. My disappointment in religion began from asking myself whether it is just to deprive women of their natural human rights and believe that god approves it.

    I’ll search for the book you told me about, and also I think that I should read The Handmaid’s Tale too.

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  • I’m in the process of reading The Selfish Gene, and I can surely say that it’s very interesting. But the point is that I have to read it only at morning, otherwise I find it difficult to understand. I remember one of the most surprising facts for me was that bananas have DNA 🙂

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  • Milva

    I once watched a child perform a DNA extraction from a banana! You can do it too. Here is a link to the procedure:(If the link doesn’t work just google “extract DNA from banana. I’m struggling with my new computer.)

    An extract from the page:

    As discussed in the program, for something to be called living or alive, it must be able to reproduce. Cells are the functional units of living things. They reproduce, in part, by making and passing deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from the parent cell to the offspring cell. All DNA is made up of the same chemical bases, adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. The order of the bases determines the proteins the cell makes and the functions the cell performs.

    In this activity, students extract DNA (and also some RNA) from bananas. They see that:•DNA is a component of living and once-living things.
    •DNA can be extracted and observed.


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  • I just had to drop by and recommend a book I’ve just finished: I Can’t Date Jesus by Michael Arceneaux.

    This book took me to so many cultural dimensions that I previously knew nothing about, and that was fascinating.

    This book is Michael’s biographical travelogue of a black, gay, lower middle class boy who makes his life happen, mostly, on his own terms.  At the end I was left with a sense of pathos; I was saddened that his life had not offered him more of an upside, given the obvious effort and intelligence he has clearly expended.

    Michael has difficulty breaking out of the mental, social and cultural straight jackets made for him by the dominant straight, white, religious majority in his native United States.  Forget the American Dream, this is the dark American Reality for millions of US citizens who are unlucky enough to be born into a minority that the other, most powerful, minorities either despise or -where they have a conscience to assuage – pay lip service to diversity and inclusion.  Michael belongs to at least two of those distrusted and vilified minorities.

    I can only think of one cultural and biological label that Michael and I share – we’re both male. Otherwise, we’re completely different people with totally different ways of looking at, and interacting with, the World.  Wow.  Thank you Michael, that was an amazing ride.

    I’m not normally a fan of travelogues, but Michael frequently breaks off to give us his deeper thoughts on family, relationships and his career – and his love of pop music stars who’s poetry speaks to him, and for him, in the wider World.  That his family hold him back, with one or two exceptions, is both sad and (even sadder) probably common – given that it seems likely many of his formative experiences are not unique.

    A timely book to make us think about the very real impact that divisive language in our polity – makes real pain and suffering in real people’s lives.

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  • 124
    Michael 100 says:

    An American Sickness, How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back, by Elisabeth Rosenthal.

    If you want to understand the American healthcare system, this is the book to read.  Rosenthal is both a physician and a medical journalist.  In the book, she traces how, from about the time of World War II, little by little, step by step, the delivery of health care became big business with trillions of dollars at stake.  The opening paragraph of the introduction states, point blank, that the focus of the American medical system is profit, not health or science.  Americans have grown numb to huge bills for medical care, and we forget that people in other advance countries don’t experience the same financial trauma when illness or injury strikes.  Everyone realizes that the system is in disarray, and unsustainable, but so far, a solution has escaped us – the Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, but it leaves a lot to be desired.  The United States spends nearly one-fifth of our gross domestic product on healthcare, more than $3 trillion a year.  Dr. Rosenthal writes: “Who among us hasn’t opened a medical bill or an explanation of benefits statement and stared in disbelief at terrifying numbers?”  She continues:  “Who hasn’t wondered over a $500 bill for a basic blood test, a $50,000 bill for minor outpatient foot surgery, or a $500,000 bill for three days in the hospital after a heart attack?  Where is all that money going?”  The rest of the book explains exactly where the money goes, and all the powerful vested interests that keep the system in place.  Those interests include physicians, clinics, hospitals, pharmacists, drug manufacturers, insurance companies, etc. etc., each of which must be paid – paid well – to deliver the service they provide.  Dr. Rosenthal writes:
    “This U.S. Healthcare system gradually evolved sector by sector, hospital by hospital, doctor by doctor.  What the players are doing is, technically speaking, perfectly legal.  Participants in the marketplace respond to the incentives and opportunities a market allows.  That’s what they’re suppose to do.  Each component of the system is genuinely convinced that it’s not so bad, not responsible for our $3 trillion medical bill.  Someone else is more to blame.  Drug spending is only 10 percent of the national health budget! Nursing homes are only responsible for 5 percent of health costs! Payments to doctors only 20 percent! Dermatology accounts for only 4 percent of Medicare expenditures!  Each segment of our medical system is convinced that it’s charges are reasonable.  But put all the little excesses together and you get healthcare that is much worse and much costlier than the sum of the parts.  We, the patients, are stuck in the middle, and it seems we’ve reached critical condition.”

    Later in the book, she writes:

    “No one player created the mess that is the $3 trillion American medical system in 2017.  People in every sector of medicine are feeding at the trough:  insurers, hospitals, doctors, manufacturers, politicians, regulators, charities, and more.  People in sectors that have nothing to do with health — banking, real estate, and tech – have also somehow found a way to extort cash from patients.  They all need to change their money-chasing ways.”

    Part One of the book traces the history of the current situation with chapters discussing insurance, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, testing and ancillary services, and research.  This part also has a chapter devoted to contractors, billing coders, collection agencies, and healthcare conglomerates.  The final chapter in this section is a discussion of the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act.  Part Two has seven chapters discussing what can be done to maneuver through the various sectors of the system and minimize the damage and offer suggestions for reform.
    Dr. Rosenthal identifies 10 economic rules of the dysfunctional medical market, and as each chapter in both parts of the book proceeds, she refers back to a particular rule to explain the absurdity of what is being explained.  The rules are:  1) More treatment is always better, default to the most expensive option; 2) A lifetime of treatment is preferable to a cure; 3) Amenities and marketing matter more than good care; 4) As technologies age, prices can rise rather than fall; 5) There is no free choice, patients are stuck, and they’re stuck buying American; 6) More competitors vying for business doesn’t mean better prices, it can drive prices up rather than down; 7) Economies of scale don’t translate to lower prices, with their market power big providers can simply demand more; 8) There is no such thing as a fixed price for a procedure or test, and the uninsured pay the highest prices of all; 9) There are no standards for billing, there’s money to be made in billing for anything and everything; 10) Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.  Although they seem absurd, each and every one of these rules is illustrated over and over throughout the book.  The rules are what drive the system. 

    I became interested in this subject when I recently underwent a 3-level anterior cervical discectomy and fusion.  Proper diagnosis and clearance for surgery involved an EMG (nerve conduction) study, x-rays, an MRI scan, EKG and echocardiogram, CAT scan and a thyroid biopsy.  My first complaint of symptoms was in July, and at the end of August I had the surgery.  I reported to the hospital on the morning of surgery, a neurosurgeon performed the surgery, and I spent one night in the hospital.  I just saw on my insurance company’s web site, that the hospital submitted charges in excess of $85,000, and that does not include any of the doctors’ bills.  Now, I’m sure that the insurance company and the hospital will negotiate a much lower amount, but that is what would be charged to someone without insurance coverage.  That’s why the first thing a patient is asked to produce at the door of any clinic or hospital is proof of insurance.  Without insurance a patient does not see a doctor nor is he/she is admitted to the hospital.  A problem can arise when someone is admitted to the hospital on an emergency basis – immediately after an acute illness such as a heart attack, or injury such as a motor vehicle accident.  A huge bill can be racked up in a short amount of time.  Those without the ability to pay are then referred to a collection agency whose fee is a percentage of the amount collected.  The collection agent is not a healthcare provider and doesn’t see any difference between a past due payment for a used car or a lifesaving open heart surgery – “pay or we’ll see you in court!”
    The good news for me was that the surgery was successful –  I was off work for about a week (after I woke up and was ensconced in a hospital room, I sent my boss a text and said I would need the rest of the afternoon off — he laughed).  Each of the physicians, from my long-time primary care physician, to the cardiologist who cleared me, to the neurosurgeon, were all among the best in the state in which I live.  The hospital was a first-class institution.  From the onset of symptoms to cure was a very short amount of time – about two months — elapsed.  I’m also very fortunate that I have a very good group health insurance plan as a benefit of my employment, and because of my age, I have Medicare as secondary insurance.  Neither insurance plan is free – both I and my employer share the cost of the group plan premium, and there is a monthly fee for the Medicare premium, not to mention that there is a Medicare deduction withheld from each pay check, employers also contribute to Medicare payroll tax.  As they say: “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”

    In any event, I think that Elisabeth Rosenthal’s An American Sickness is well worth a read by any American who wants to understand the realities of our healthcare system.  I think that people in other countries will find the book a good source of information if there is any debate about changing your national health plans to private, for-profit, insurance-based systems.

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  • I have Why I Am Not A Muslim by Ibn Warraq on my phone and have just read the chapter Women And Islam. Honestly I feel saddened after the reading and also ashamed of myself in the past, when I supported the ideas of women segregation, hijab and so on.

    And the situation in Pakistan is even worse than I could imagine.

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  • Milva

    That’s an important book. It can be disturbing to read these new ideas. It takes time to take it all in. The same thing happened to me when I left the church except that it was feminist books in the 1970’s that confronted my Methodist training. I felt like for a time, I was walking around with two separate systems operating in my head at the same time. Little by little the feminist ideas and the science ideas obliterated the bad old religious ideas. I’m happy it happened that way but I won’t say that it was an easy, straightforward process.

    Don’t feel bad about supporting those bad old segregation and hijab ideas. When there’s huge cultural pressure like what you’ve experienced and not a single person near you who can or will defy it then how can you realize that there’s anything else? If not for the old second wave feminists I might still be stuck in traditional old patriarchal mode. UGH!

    Good work, Milva. I’m so interested to follow your progress!

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  • LaurieB

    Yes, there is a huge pressure in the patriarchal culture (but many women here will say that there’s not and they have choices – just like I used to say). But for me the most important was the will of Allah. That he wants people to follow these ridiculous laws. And anyone thinking another way is, at least, a sinner. Or infidel if you dare say it loud. So even if there were feminists near me 10 or 8 years ago, I think I wouldn’t listen to them. I’d say it’s haram and so on.

    Also, about two months ago I read Infidel by Ayyan Hirsi Ali. I agree with her on many points, and on the whole, I’m interested in the stories where Muslims lose their religion because every story isn’t like another one.

    As for Ibn Warraq, anyone interested in Islam must read this book. Not only islamic books where they try to cheat and manipulate you.

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  • Milva,

    Yes, there is a huge pressure in the patriarchal culture (but many women here will say that there’s not and they have choices –

    I agree that the pressure is huge. What is very disappointing is when much of that pressure comes from the other women all around us. Older women in our families who try to control the younger ones, slut shaming by our peers, and controlling messages from media all contribute. Religious teachings transfer a strong message that warns girls and women not to step out of line and to fear and hate sexual feelings that naturally exist in us. Threats of burning in hell and other punishments from God/Allah mentioned constantly. This is very damaging.

    In patriarchal culture, supported by strong religious indoctrination, female sexuality is presented as a false dichotomy; we are either good, pure virgins who exist to please men or we’re dirty, crazy sluts who bring shame on our families. This is a false picture of female sexuality.

    The two things that females seek in our reproductive strategy are 1. Who will be the father of our children, and 2. The timing of our pregnancies for best advantage for the survival of our children. Aren’t these the two very things that religion tries hardest to control?!!

    Arranged marriages, rape and blocking of birth control and abortion are all matters that Christianity and Islam have much to say about and none of it is in our favor, Milva!

    even if there were feminists near me 10 or 8 years ago, I think I wouldn’t listen to them. I’d say it’s haram and so on.

    Ok Milva, it’s really ok. It’s an important realization and it’s a good honest thought. Everyone, if they’re honest has thoughts and behaviors that they regret or that they’d change if they only could go back in time. I see that you understand how very effective childhood indoctrination can be and you see the results of that all around you. If it’s safe, you can make subtle corrections to children around you. A quiet comment to a child who has been threatened with “haram” is valuable. “You won’t burn in hell. There’s no such thing as hell. It’s just a scary story, that’s all.” or “She believes all that but I don’t and you don’t have to either.” If a child or teen knows that there is even one single adult near them who sees life in a more humanistic, kind way I think it would offer them a whole different way of seeing their world. This is important to me. I made it out of the religion trap and I intent to offer that to others too.

     I readInfidel by Ayyan Hirsi Ali.

    That is another very important book by someone who I consider to be a hero. You say that you agree with her on many points, but were there points with which you disagreed? I’d be interested to hear what those are just as part of an interesting discussion.

    I have Infidel and Why I Am Not a Muslim Here in my bookcase if I need to look up any sections for discussion.

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  • Arranged marriages, rape and blocking of birth control and abortion are all matters that Christianity and Islam have much to say about and none of it in our favor

    And there are still many women poisoned with all that ideology. I suppose that Judaism is no better.

    If a child or teen knows that there is even one single adult near them who sees life in a more humanistic, kind way  I think it would offer them a whole different way of seeing their world

    Of course it would. Now there are no children I could say something to, but my little nephew is 2 years old and I’m afraid he will be indoctrinated.

    But I will surely try to do something.

    You say that you agree with her on many points, but were there points with which you disagreed?

    Well, not disagreed, but hadn’t enough information to say something. It’s about Europe and human rights, and freedom. Is that all really true what she had written?

    I don’t remember when she called Muhammad pedophile, but it’s the point I can’t agree with until we know it for sure. That is, there are hadith where it’s told by Aisha that she was 6 or 9 years old, but according to her other words she couldn’t be that little and she was 15 or 18 years old. So, in my opinion it can be wrong to call Muhammad pedophile. Maybe Aisha wasn’t that young.

    But what is bad in this story – it makes a loophole for pedophiles. And no imam or sheikh doesn’t change the situation and even if he wanted, he wouldn’t dare because hadith are considered as something holy and those ones in which Aisha is a child are considered reliable.

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  • Milva

     It’s about Europe and human rights, and freedom. Is that all really true what she had written?

    Right. Are you thinking of the free speech issue in Europe and US where certain critical statements and artworks  having to do with Islam and the Prophet were presented to the public? I realize that these things are shocking to people who come from a culture where that is never allowed and where there are extreme punishments for those who insult Islam and the Prophet. In the West however, we are very used to freedom of speech and all of the other constitutional rights we have like freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and other protections. To be honest, even when I was a believing Christian, I hardly noticed insults to Jesus because they are ubiquitous! We used to say that if one was strong in their faith then nasty comments wouldn’t matter at all.

    Milva, I know that sometimes we feel that free speech goes too far. Sometimes I do get very grossed out or feel insulted by something that’s been said or feel disgusted by a work of art or a gross song but I always have the option of looking away and walking away. I do this often. But what would happen if someone else was doing the choosing for me? Doing the censuring for me? Saying what is art and what is not? Deciding which books will see the light of day and which will not? Who will decide which ideas are kind or cruel? Good or bad?

    If we have no freedom of speech then I’d have never encountered feminist ideology, never read about other religions and what they promote, never learned about communism, socialism, Marxism or a million other ideas and I would never have heard anyone suggest that Jesus might be just a man who was just as flawed as every man and woman on the face of the earth and maybe the guy just wasn’t special at all.

    It’s very important here in the West that I be the one to hear, see and experience everything out there and to decide for myself what is good or bad, right or wrong and valuable and not valuable. I want that for you too. I want everyone to be arguing back and forth about new and exciting ideas that show up every single day. But we can’t do that in an environment of fear and intimidation.

    So when the Europeans upset many Muslims by exercising their free speech rights, it was an extremely important event to them because we of the West are very nervous about anyone trying to limit our ability to say exactly what we want and need to say.

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  • Milva,

    The accusations of the Prophet being a pedophile are, I think, going to be difficult for you to reconcile. This is an accusation that is upsetting to hear about anyone and when it’s directed against a man that you’ve been taught to love and respect your whole life then it must throw you off balance dramatically.

    For those of us outside of Islam, we never saw the Prophet as anything other than an Arabian warrior who lived more than a thousand years ago. He was a man of his time and place and was no better and no worse than any other of his peers. I believe life was much more brutal then than it is now and I don’t doubt that women and children suffered rape on a regular basis. They were possessions of men who used them as they pleased with callous disregard and the law and religions didn’t seem to have any problem with that. Both the Bible and the Koran have no problem with polygyny, slavery, forced marriage and assault and battery. Is it really so much of a stretch to believe that Mohammed married a six year old daughter of his associate and then had sex with her when she was nine years old? I haven’t read the haddith by Aisha herself but I’ve been told that she says that this is the truth. Have you read her account?

    Please don’t think that I’m making excuses for this revolting tale. It disgusts me to the core. But under the historical circumstances, I have no reason to doubt it. I agree with your last paragraph completely:

    But what is bad in this story – it makes a loophole for pedophiles. And no imam or sheikh doesn’t change the situation and even if he wanted, he wouldn’t dare because hadith are considered as something holy and those ones in which Aisha is a child are considered reliable.

    This is a catastrophe for Muslims everywhere and one of the reasons why Muslims must do the right thing and denounce this entire story and then build strong laws to block child marriage and child rape. (all rape of course!)

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  • LaurieB

    Yes, the freedom of speech has two sides. On the one, you can hear something you’d never want to hear (for me, it’s sexist remarks, and here where I live they are much more welcomed than anti-religious speech). On the other, one would never know about the things which would become very important for her/him. As for me, I read about feminism thanks to the “freedom of Internet” 🙂 That’s of course the necessary part of freedom at all.

    But my question was about everything. Can girls and boys really live as they want?

    He was a man of his time and place and was no better and no worse than any other of his peers

    It’s what I think too! We should look at it all in the historical context.  But as long as Muslims see the prophet as an eternal example of righteousness there will be no change. I see it all. They consider him as impeccable.

    Of course in the dark ages no one would be shocked by pedophilia. It should have been rather common. But the point is that we really, really don’t know the age of Aisha. There is a link, but it’s in Russian:

    In our century it’s better to prove that she wasn’t a child. Just to make all the loopholes disappear. But that can happen only when Islam is reformed. Muslims still understand their sacred texts literally and it will change much, much later, but reforms are already possible in our lifetime.

  • My big big comment disappeared but I’ll try to write about the basic points again.

    Yes the freedom of speech has two sides. On the one, you can hear something you’d never want to hear, and on the other, without it you can miss many important things. As for me, I read about feminism thanks to the freedom of Internet 🙂 Which is just a part of some freedom of speech, which still exists in Russia.

    But I wanted to ask about, eh, freedom like this: can girls and boys really do what they want? Especially girls. I’m very interested in question concerning women freedom after the years I made myself live even without that little ounce of freedom that we have here in our region.

    Of course I agree that the prophet was a man of his time and we consider his social and political role in the historical context. But if there were imams saying that surely Aisha wasn’t that young there wouldn’t be legal pedophilia at all.

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  • Sorry, Milva: the site has a spam detector that quite often sets comments containing links to one side pending moderator approval.

    We’ve approved your original comment now (#134).

    The mods

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  • Milva

    “freedom of Internet” That’s of course the necessary part of freedom at all.

    It’s a very necessary freedom! I’ve been saying around here for a while now that between the internet and satellite TV bringing the outside world into previously isolated homes, there’s no way to hide information anymore. Young people everywhere can see how their peers live in other countries around the world. This has religious tyrants running scared. As they lose their authoritative grip on children and teens then they’ll fade into obscurity. That’ll be a good day.

    I also wanted to say that there are legal limits on freedom of speech here in the West. Our freedoms are not without limit because they are blocked legally (and ethically) where they reach a point of harming another person. So I suppose, the real discussion on freedoms should be – Where should we set those legal limits? There will be no end of disagreement between citizens on that!

    Can girls and boys really live as they want?

    Can you elaborate on this question? I’m not sure what you had in mind. Do you mean, can they live in total freedom or did you mean, can they have sexual freedom? Or all of the above?

    They consider him as impeccable.

    This is a daunting problem. I’ve heard even devout Muslims making snide comments about how ridiculous this has become. A Muslim woman friend of mine was annoyed with her husband and said to him, “If the Prophet carried his comb in his left back pocket then the next day a billion Muslim men would have one there too!!” Oh well, maybe it doesn’t translate…She was implying that he couldn’t make a move without imitating everything about the Prophet like a robot. Ok, never mind haha. The believers who insist that Mohammed is impeccable in every way also insist that Muslims must have the simplest of funerals and gravesites because that’s what the Prophet required and it’s all to prove that he was just a man and that everyone is equal in death. So these two ideas cause some confusion to me. People get angry when I point out the discrepancy of course.

    In our century it’s better to prove that she wasn’t a child. Just to make all the loopholes disappear

    I DO see where you’re going with this! Although I believe she really was probably a child who was married off to a man in his fifties, I would be willing to go on worldwide TV and swear to Allah that there’s been a terrible mistake in the writing of the Koran! A terrible nasty mistake! Some idiot left out a word in the transcription. Instead of sex at nine, the REAL age of that consummation was TWENTY-nine! Now if I could just convince the leading Sunni and Shia clerics to spread the word – We’ll be well on our way to massive reform! And while they’re at it, they also need to rewrite the permission in the Koran for beating wives, right Milva?

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  • It probably should, Laurie, yes.

    We can’t move posts between threads, though, unfortunately – not without having them show as having been posted by us rather than you and Milva.

    If the two of you want to copy your non-book-related comments to the Open Discussion thread, we can delete the originals for you here.

    Alternatively (and probably more simply), you could just continue the discussion on the other thread, prefacing your comments there with a reference back to the relevant comment numbers here so that people can see the start of the conversation if they want to.


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  • 145
    Michael 100 says:

    The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins 

    I’m sure I read this in the late 1980s or early 90s, shortly after it was first published, but I decided to get another copy and read it again.  I won’t be so bold to try to summarize the content.  Suffice it to say that it’s a great resource for anyone new to evolutionary thinking as well as those of us who have no doubt but need to reinforce our understanding of how evolution works. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read.  A couple things jumped out at me that I will mention. 

    In chapter One, Professor Dawkins notes that he could not imagine being an atheist at any time before 1859, when Darwin’s Origin of Species was published.  I had just finished reading John Stuart Mill’s autobiography. Mill, if you recall, received his education in the very early 1800s, from his father who had completely abandoned any notion of theism. Mill makes the point that he never had to give up, or grow out of any kind of religious thinking, because he had never been burdened with it in the first place.  Speaking from personal experience, I certainly appreciate how much easier it is to be an atheist after having gained a better understanding of evolution as well as the other sciences to know that a god hypothesis is an unnecessary element when explaining the natural world.  One doesn’t need to be a scientist to know that supernaturalism is nonsense, but it sure is nice to know that one’s intuition jibes with solid evidence.

    Another thing that jumped out at me was to learn that one fo my favorite authors:  “Arthur Koestler was another distinguished man of letters who could not abide what he saw as the implications of Darwinism,” and who in 1970 wrote The Case of the Midwife Toad, “a failed attempt to demonstrate the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.”  I have very much enjoyed reading Koestler’s works about the early 20th century— Darkness at Noon, Scum of the Earth, Arrival and Departure, to name just three. But as Professor Dawkins writes, quoting Stephen Jay Gould:  “throughout his last six books Koestler conducted ‘a campaign against his own misunderstanding of Darwinism’. He sought refuge in an alternative which was never entirely clear to me but which can be interpreted as an obscure version of Lamarckism.”  As Joe E. Brown, said at the end of Some Like it Hot:  “ Well, nobody’s perfect!”  

    I’m really glad I read The Blind Watchmaker again.

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  • For anyone who’s still looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for someone who has been following the Brexit saga (or themselves, of course!), you could do far worse than get them a copy of “I am the Border, so I am” – the new book by the author of the much-loved Twitter account @BorderIrish.

    I cannot begin to do justice to the sheer brilliance of this book. It somehow manages to combine razor-sharp political insight, endless wit and enormous poignancy. Every single page is a gem. I had been slightly hesitant about it, simply because, for me, there is nothing remotely funny about Brexit. But this book is so richly clever, so deeply witty (in the very best sense of the word), that it quickly became one of my favourite reads of the year.

    I gather there’s a US edition due to be published in the new year too.

    I’m usually a great kindle fan, but it would be worth getting a printed copy of this one, as the illustrations are a delight in themselves.

    The Twitter account is well worth a follow, too.

  • 147
    Michael 100 says:

    The Darkening Age, The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, by Catherine Nixey, (2018)

    I was listening to an Origins Podcast with Lawrence Krauss and Noam Chomsky. at about an hour, 24 minutes, 40 seconds into the podcast.     They both spoke highly of this book (“It’s an amazing book” to use their words).  I thought you couldn’t get a better recommendation than that, so I got a copy and am happy I did. 

    The book begins and ends in the year 532 of the common era (although Nixey uses the terms BC and AD) when a band of philosophers, led by Damascius, left Athens because of a law enacted by the emperor Justinian, known as Law, which forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labor under the insanity of paganism.  The consequences of that law drove Damascius and the others out of Athens and caused the Academy to close.  It was from this moment, it was said, that a Dark Age began to descend upon Europe.  “From almost the very first years that a Christian emperor had ruled in Rome in AD 312, liberties had begun to be eroded.  And then, in AD 529, a final blow had fallen.  It was decreed that all those who labored under the insanity of paganism – in other words Damascius and his fellow philosophers – would no longer be allowed to teach.”  Furthermore, the law required everyone to come forward and be baptized.  Anyone who slipped back into “paganism” would be executed. 
    Roving bands of monks destroyed the culture of the Greeks and Romans.  Reading the book, one is reminded of the destruction of the Taliban and ISIS, but the Christians made the 20th/21st century Muslims, look tame.  The destruction of temples, priceless works of art, and an unfathomable amount of literature was not the work of a few rogue radicals, it was led by those who are now known as the fathers of the Church; people like St. Augustine, St. Martin – still a popular French saint – St. Theophilus, St. Benedict, St. John Chrysostom, and Athanasius, to name a few.  It’s a who’s who of the early Christian Church.

    To tell her story, Nixey zig-zags through history and geography, opening in Egypt where monasticism is born, moves to Rome as the new religion is beginning to make an appearance, travels to northern Turkey, to Bithynia, to Alexandria in Egypt and Syria, and finally to Athens where the story ends in AD 529.

    Another thing that jumped out at me was how the Romans described the Christians, one would think he/she was reading Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.  Let me just quote a few choice passages.  “It was clear to Celsus that a person’s religious affiliation was based less on any rational analysis of competing religious ideologies than on the geography of their birth.”  “It wasn’t just the fact that Christians were ignorant about philosophical theories that annoyed Celsus; it was that Christians actually revealed in their ignorance.”  “Christians are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women and little children.”  “Christians, Celsus wrote: ‘do not want to give or to receive a reason for what they believe and use such expressions as “do not ask questions; just believe,” and “Thy faith will save thee.”’ To men as educated as Celsus and Galen this was unfathomable; in Greek philosophy, faith was the lowest form of cognition.”  “Origen, Celsus’s great adversary, admitted that ‘the stupidity of some Christians is heavier than the sand of the sea.’”  Porphyry wrote that most people thought the story of Jonah and the Whale to be nonsense, as it is utterly improbable and incredible that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish.  “Porphyry found himself baffled as to why God had waited so long to save mankind:  ‘If Christ declares Himself to be the Way of salvation, the Grace and the Truth… what has become of men who lived in the many centuries before Christ came?’ he asked.”

    St. Anthony wrote that there was no need to read:  give up both books and bread and you will win God’s favor.  “It was hearing about how the simple, unlettered Anthony had inspired so many to turn to Christ that led Augustine to start striking himself on the head, tearing his hair and asking, ‘What is wrong with us?’ Ignorance was power.”  On reading this last passage, I couldn’t help but thing of the infamous phrase: “We love the poorly educated.”  In this sign shall you conquer, indeed!

    Nixey recognizes that Christianity is not the only force that led to the dark ages:  She wrote:

    “This is a book about the Christian destruction of the classical world.  The Christian assault was not the only one – fire, flood, invasion and time itself all played their part – but this book focuses on Christianity’s assault in particular.  This is not to say that the Church didn’t also preserve things.  It did. But the story of Christianity’s good works in this period has been told again and again; such books proliferate in libraries and bookshops.  The History of the sufferings of those whom Christianity defeated have not been.  This book concentrates on them.”
     It was a quick read, but well worth the time.  As Chomsky and Krauss point out, the book relates to politics today as much as it does to the history of early Christianity and and the beginning of the dark age.

  • One of the most extraordinary books I’ve read recently was The Order of the Day, by Eric Vuillard, which shines a spotlight on the rise of Hitler and the road to war, and the way a combination of cock-up, short-termism, naivety and self-interest enabled both.

    The English version has been brilliantly translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, and from the first page to the last the whole thing is exceptionally beautifully written: crystal clear yet at the same time lyrical. I’d go so far as to say it is almost painfully exquisite: as I was reading it, I found myself consciously slowing down, wanting to savour every sentence. And it wasn’t just the beauty and elegance of it either: the intelligence and originality and profundity of it is outstanding too.

    I won’t go into detail, as the Guardian review linked to below does a good job, but it defies categorisation, really. The publishers call it a novel, but that really is stretching the definition too far, I think. The Guardian review calls is “a historical essay with literary flourishes”, which I think comes very close. Personally I think of it more as a kind of literary meditation on history, one that’s quite unlike any other I’ve read.

    Several reviewers have highlighted what they call its black comedy. I suppose elements of it are comical: farcical, certainly. But I’m not sure it’s a term I’d have used about it myself: the reader feels to be experiencing the events, the encounters, the thought processes, in real time, yet we know the hideous outcome of them, so the only times I came close to anything like laughter were in some of the more absurd (yet true!) situations (the review mentions one of them: the account of Hitler’s tanks breaking down en masse while headed to Austria for the Anschluss). History – even history of the grimmest kind – evidently has its slapstick elements.

    And in the era of Trump and Brexit, I don’t think it’s ever possible to read about the rise of Hitler and the path to catastrophe without being keenly aware of contemporary resonances. This is a book that works on two levels, definitely. Disaster doesn’t just require powerful and malevolent men intent on evil: it also requires the weak, cowardly, unimaginative, self-serving men (in the book, it is almost entirely men) who enable them in the blind pursuit of profit.

    It’s a short book, less than 150 pages, and definitely one I shall go back to at some point: there’s so much to it that I’m sure I shall spot more on a 2nd or even 3rd reading.

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  • marco

    crystal clear yet at the same time lyrical. I’d go so far as to say it is almost painfully exquisite: as I was reading it, I found myself consciously slowing down, wanting to savour every sentence.

    feeling like this about all the books am reading at this time

    especially the ancestor’s tale at the part about viruses(!) near the end

    since local library system is closed to actual hard copy books

    savour savour savour all the way

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  • 151
    Michael 100 says:

    Quarecuss:  I hope you’re enjoying The Ancestor’s Tale.  I too think of it in the context of the COVID-19 situation.
    I’ve now read, in the following order, The Blind Watchmaker, The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Ancestor’s Tale, Climbing Mount Improbable, and River out of Eden.  I feel like I now know something about how the process of evolution works.  I’m not sure if the order in which I read them was the best choice, but I found that the information gained from one book was very valuable as I read the others.
    I think it was Professor Dawkins who wrote someplace that evolution is a topic about which everyone has an opinion, but very few know much about.  I have always, even when I was a practicing Catholic, accepted evolution as a scientific fact, but I never explored the subject much further.  As a child, I was taught that the Book of Genesis was not written as a science text and I could never understand how anyone could take it literally.  Now, however, having read the aforementioned books, I am fascinated by the topic.  I feel like I know enough to be able to continue studying.  As I was reading Prof. Dawkins’ books, I noted some of the authors he recommended – John Maynard Smith, among many others, leaps to mind.  Also recently got a copy of The Arrival of the Fittest by Andreas Wagner, a book that was recommended by Phil some time ago.

    I for one, am very grateful to Professor Dawkins for sharing this wealth of knowledge.  And I would say to anyone, whether you are a longtime atheist, or someone who is just shaking off the delusion of religion, if you are curious about how evolution works, Professor Dawkins’ work is the best place to begin your studies.

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  • @ Laurie from Open Discussion re: Circe

    I’m in a book club co-sponsored by PBS and New York Times, and that was our selection a few months back. It took me a while to get emotionally ‘invested’ but once I did, there was no turning back. I loved it.

    It’s like a woman’s version of an epic poem, and even features Ulysses. The interesting difference is Ulysses was focused on the world’s perception of him, while Circe (in Miller’s book) is focused on a personal quest of self-acceptance. Lots of comparisons to be made between Virgil’s man-tale and Miller’s woman-tale.



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  • Had to buy the Vuillard, Marco. It looks to be delicious.

    Had to buy Circe also, Laurie. I so need some fiction, so long neglected by me. I so needed it to be something I wouldn’t automatically go to

    I love the Dawk, one of my three hero Richards. In ’76 catapulting me into evolution, genetics and, with the cunning teaching aid of mimetics, linking it all back to neuroscience and philosophy.

    But excepting The Extended Phenotype the most intimate I became with evolution was through Your Inner Fish. Somehow Neil Shubin put me in touch with how evolution worked in a way that I could carry into other disciplines. “Some Assembly Required” looks to be my next fix of this.


    Still slogging through Surveillance Capitalism, though a little unsure of some of her base assumptions.

    Finished two historical bios both excellent on Dido Belle (and adoptive father Lord Mansfield)  and Anne Lister.

    Currently I am mostly reading Nick Chater’s “The Mind is Flat”, arguing against a subconscious as a working mind like a conscious mind, merely hidden. He argues that what we take as the product of subconscious thought is in fact spontaneously generated in the conscious. Its full of interesting stuff and I love it so far because I think he has it almost entirely wrong, tilting at an idea few neuro-scientists really hold. It has provoked me into crystalising some of my own hypotheses. I realise now I could do with reading more books that are wrong in some major way, to drive me on and fewer of those that promote “my” ideas rather too well and years ahead of me.

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  • Phil

    Oh, yay. Some Assembly Required. As soon as I finish Circe I’m launching into that one. I was looking forward to meeting Shubin at his scheduled book talk in Harvard Square but it’s been cancelled, dammit! I have a modest collection of signed first editions and I wanted to have him sign the dead tree version of the new one and my first edition of Inner Fish. Oh well, another irritation of the current situation, too minor to be complaining about of course.

    But hey, give a shout out when you start Some Assembly.. and I’ll try to coordinate my reading.

    Anyone else going to read that?  Book groups are fun when everyone has just read the book and it’s fresh in our minds and can ask questions and discuss interesting points all together.

    Shubin’s book is the perfect club discussion choice. He has an excellent writing style and hopefully won’t intimidate the non-science majors.  My brother quite enjoyed Inner Fish and he’s a business major.

    What say ye? Give it a go?

    A Biography of Anne Lister?! I watched a series on her life a while back. What a fascinating woman. I’d like to know more. My heart broke for her.

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  • Phil

    Yes, the TV series I saw was Gentleman Jack.



    I think you won’t be disappointed by Inner Fish. I can’t count how many times I’ve recommended it to people who want to get started on Evo science but need advice on what to read first. (You are not in that category of course!).

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  • Phil

    In your comment #154 above, you mentioned reading Surveillance Capitalism. Pinker has linked to an article that discusses “techlash”. That book is mentioned.

    Societal Issues
    There are a range of claims made against tech and tech companies that relate to societal impacts, in areas such as privacy and human well-being.

    Claim #1: Tech Companies Are Destroying Consumer Privacy
    Perhaps the most pervasive criticism of large Internet and tech companies is they have given rise to so-called “surveillance capitalism”: the idea that pervasive data collection, including, but not limited to, tracking on websites, is eroding all privacy online.39 Shoshana Zuboff, who wrote a book with the provocative title, Surveillance Capitalism, has stated:
    Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Although some of these data are applied to product or service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence,’ and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.40

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  • 163
    Michael 100 says:

    I’m reading a Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True.  This may be a first edition.  It was published by Oxford University Press in 2009.  If anyone has a more recent edition, maybe you could check something.  On page 24 of my copy, which I borrowed from Internet Archive –, Dr. Coyne writes about Nicholaus Steno and states that Steno was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1988.  I knew that can’t possibly be correct, so I went to Wikipedia, and saw that the process of canonization was begun in 1938 – which was during the time of Pius XI – and in 1988 John Paul II beatified Steno.  So, Steno has not been canonized, and the facts about the popes are mixed up (that’s understandable — when you’ve seen one pope, you’ve seen them all).  This is a minor glitch which doesn’t detract in the least from Dr. Coyne’s work, but I wonder if the glitch was corrected in later editions.

    By the way, I just finished reading Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish.  If I keep going, I may know something about evolution.

  • Michael

    I don’t have a copy of WEIT but glad you’ve read Inner Fish. I’m half way through Some Assembly Required by Shubin.

    When I took Anatomy and Physiology class we covered some of the material that I’m reading in Assembly but it’s such a different experience than reading Shubin’s presentation of the material. This is why I recommend these types of books. He presents the material on the topic of developmental biology in the form of a nonfiction narrative and it really brings it to life.

    The academic texts are useful in a certain way; for loading facts in an organized, intensive way, but in Shubin’s books (and others of the same genre) he includes details of the people who moved the science forward and the daunting challenges that they faced. I’ll admit that I’m not immune to the entertainment value of gossip and silly stories of interactions between the characters that play their parts in the drama of the history of science on the stage of life. Shakespeare says it best:

    All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.
    William Shakespeare

    I have some friends who are teachers on the high school level and after discussion of the value of these narrative nonfiction books, they’ve included some of them in their curriculums and have coordinated their lessons with teachers in other departments for a more all around understanding of concepts in the context of their history and a more in depth familiarity with the characters involved.

    For a good understanding of any character, a textbook mention of the person, dates of birth and death and quick description of their accomplishment is not enough. It’s too sterile. In times past we edited out unseemly behavior or aspects of the character’s life but this leaves us with a very dull and forgettable story. Now we can acknowledge that scientists and others are only human. They don’t have perfect lives. They struggle with the same challenges that we of the hoi polloi do too. They botch up their love lives and blunder into some episodes of bad judgement like we all do. And still,  for the good of us all, they manage to use skill and natural talent to plow through the debris of everyday life and make discoveries and publish results that change life (mostly) for the better.

    This is the value of reading nonfiction narrative and nonfiction books in general.

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  • Gina Rippon is brilliant! Writing so many interesting things! I didn’t know most of them. Of course Rippon considers many different researches and pays very great attention at little children and their brains. Newborns are special because their brains’ structures don’t have those differences from each other that the grown ups’ brains have. So a brain reflects the life of a human being as if it would be a big diary (my comparison).

    A lot of things standing on a girl’s way. And I can say myself that I had it all, but I was somehow lucky – I learned to play chess and had my own place under the sun for some time. Until I came into religion, of course. Religion ruins everything it touches. And though I’d like to read what the author of “Gendered Brain” thinks about religion (as a reason for many gender stereotypes), I’m not sure that I’ll find it in the book. I’m closer to the end and sth makes me suppose that the other parts of the book are also devoted to neuroscience and neurosexism. Not the influence of religion.

    Anyway, it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve ever opened.

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  • Milva


    I just bought The Gendered Brain, and ordered her next for my daughter.

    I do love this back-swing towards a blanker slate. Neuroscience is starting to get into a particularly fruitful mode IMO. It so unpicks the arguments of Natural Law proponents and expands our horizons and capacity for adventure.

    It ain’t necessarily so. We breed ourselves more than we imagine.

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  • phil rimmer

    We desperately need to expand our horizons. Though there are people who try to turn back to the past I believe in the future of science.

    Not so long ago I read also Behave by Robert Sapolsky, and it’s the case when both the book and the author make the best impression. He’s great!

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  • “Behave” is an important book and Sapolsky a great educator, who more than most appreciates the rich array of factors that play into being human. Often enough I have posted the copy of his lecture on schizotypal behaviour and how it finds a home among the religious.

    My own enthusiasm for neuroscience is almost as old as I am (old), but it has just got richer and richer in its understanding of us. I had intended to return to university to do an MSc on neuro-constructivism, a discipline all about how the finer detail of neural structure as it is made is contingent upon neural ecology, the neurons already formed and pruned, and the data fluxes that our culture contrives for our infant (barely made yet) brains. But having done most of the coursework I need to put the ideas to work.

    Genetics made a grab for the narrative account of humanness in the eighties and nineties, with a whole-hearted throwing out of the idea of the human mind as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, open to have written upon what we wish. This was exactly true in one sense yet entirely insufficient to explain what our potential could be. Genes have conferred us a species of evolved neuron types (37 by one mode of analysis). They are all neatly laid out for use, but by the time the human brain is born, very little of them have been formal wired up

    What is emerging is that neuron types can be pressed into the service of other types of jobs. An optic nerve in a tadpole can be re-routed to an auditory location and the tadpole still develops an ability to see. But much more, because we are born with only 28% of our final brain matter (chimps 50%, other animals most of it) and with very little of it linked up, our brains uniquely are made in a potentially unique cultural formative flux. Its our species big trick, to breed ourselves to meet the demands of ever newer ecosystems.

    You may find neuro-constructivist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book “How Emotions are Made” helpful in understanding just how contingent and plastic human cognition and culture can be.


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  • phil rimmer

    Thank you for the recommendation! I also heard about such a book as Habits Of A Happy Brain by Loretta Breuning. Will it be helpful for me? Yes, I’d like to ask an advice because there are so many books and I don’t know which one is better 🙂

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  • Recently acquired a copy of Ruben molina and Asier Larramendi’s guide to theropods.

    I particularly admire the avian traits in maniraptors. Similar to observing simians, its like taking photos of brief moments of evolution’s timeline, like natural history broken into innumerable pieces. This is exciting because the organisms which live today likely carry plesiomorphic traits of their distant descendants. Who knows which appendages or qualities will be exaggerated in their progeny. Perhaps we can predict potential developmental pathways? Evolution does follow vague patterns.

    I enjoy somewhat comprehensive guides because I can always procure new information. There are literally infinite potential species of dinosaurs considering known rates of speciation and the length of the mesozoic.

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  • I recently discovered The God Delusion which led me here and to a few books in this discussion for my wish list. I actually went to criminal justice grad school in 1996 to prove the existence of the holy spirit in my thesis (Scientists Discover God by Templeton). That proved a bit more complicated than I had time for and so I spent a year looking at what CJ sites links led to, and self publishing all my work online each night. Interesting. Now retired and I find ten books by my chair, and I read a chapter of each before moving to the next.  Science sure has increased in knowledge since my high school days. Can’t say that I am too thrilled with many aspects of religion and I am curious to see the world free from it, which might not be so easy. But, exciting new subject to read. Thanks Richard Dawkins.


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  • 173
    Michael 100 says:

    Steve Dykehouse #172:  Pardon me for bringing it up, but it seems very strange to me that in 1996, an intelligent adult would be attempting to prove the existence of the Holy Spirit.  And, that you were looking for such proof in a criminal justice curriculum, of all places???  I sincerely hope you have since come to your senses and realize that none of the gods exist.  If you haven‘t already got a copy, please find Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, and take the time to read more than the first chapter.

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  • 175
    Michael 100 says:

    WalsallBoy #174.  For no particular reason, my first choice was The Blind Watchmaker.  I read that before The Selfish Gene and the others.  I think my choice of which book to read next was sort of random, but it worked for me. What ever order you choose, however, you won’t be disappointed.

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  • WalsallBoy #174

    I think it very much depends on the extent of your current scientific knowledge and interest. If you’re already well versed in science and are used to reading about it in some detail, you’ll get a huge amount from The Selfish Gene, I’m sure; and although I’ve never read The Blind Watchmaker myself, all the sciency people I know have and recommend it highly.

    I came to Richard’s books from an entirely non-scientific background, though, and needed a much gentler introduction. For me, his two books of collected essays – A Devil’s Chaplain and Unweaving the Rainbow – were literally life-changing. For the first time ever, I found writing about science that I could not only understand, but that was also totally uplifting and inspiring. I think they sometimes get rather overlooked, especially by people who don’t need the scientific nursery slopes, but for anyone looking for a general introduction to the wonder of science and the natural world, as well as the beauty of Richard’s writing style, they are absolutely perfect.

    And for something more specifically evolution-focused, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution is another real favourite of mine. Again, it’s highly accessible, even to people with limited or no background in science, but utterly compelling.

    I did give Selfish Gene a go, and enjoyed it up to a point, but for my purposes it went into the nitty gritty in too much detail and in the end I’m afraid I lost interest. This was entirely my failing, not the book’s, and it may well be exactly what you’re looking for, but if not, the other books I’ve mentioned may be more your thing.

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  • Thanks Michael 100 and Marco

    My science knowledge is limited, so maybe The Selfish Gene might not be the easiest start then. I will check out the other titles you suggest in more detail.

    That interview I posted is really good if you haven’t watched it already. Some really cool ideas about AI, consciousness and reality. It also touches upon the morals debate currently being discussed on the main forum.

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  • Found How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Barrett a very interesting book. Read it with great pleasure especially some of the chapters. Also Lisa’s manner of sharing the information with the readers is very nice. You really feel comfortable while reading this book. And you gotta know a lot of new information you can agree or disagree with (the latter in case you support biological determinism or like that). Anyway, I’m sure the book will be helpful for everyone. And it’s not hard for understanding as some other books can be. For me, it’s very important because I’m not a scientist and I want to understand what I’m reading about.

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  • Glad you liked the Lisa Barrett Feldman, Milva. It has a lot of useful ideas in it. I particularly liked the realisation of emotional granularity, especially so as an aspie male. This idea that, like colour palette, only by early introspecting and noticing with cultural help, do we learn to discern the varieties and subtleties of our emotional affect. I think this is an idea of significant importance in early education. I am a keen proponent of P4C, philosophy for children where amongst other aspects kids get to compare and contrast their lives with the experiences of others. I think we have always noticed others before we notice ourselves and this inner contemplation of our own emotional affect might be a nice rounding of the P4C lessons.

    I got Graziano Breuning Habits of a Happy Brain. I think the science is sound and she is very engaging, though I am (for no good reason) allergic to self-help books and for that matter the pursuit of happiness. (I think I feel more alive with the roller coaster of joy and sorrow… life as poetry). Yet its a great book to read having a bath, to be dipped into.

    I await Gina Rippon, Gender and Our Brains, on back order. 4th July, now.


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  • walsall boy

    a dawkins first book?   the ancestor’s tale


    (I think I feel more alive with the roller coaster of joy and sorrow… life as poetry)

    poetry    the music of what happens
    happy bloomsday to all

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  • 186
    Michael 100 says:

    I recently finished reading Neil Shubin’s The Universe Within, The Deep History of the Human Body.  The book, to quote Shubin, is organized as a timeline beginning 13.7 billion years ago through to the formation of our solar system and life on our planet – including you and me. 

    The book really tells the story of how scientific evidence is gathered – some of which was gathered by Shubin himself on icebergs in Greenland and Antarctica – and how that evidence explains the  natural world. The book tells the story of the many of the people who gathered that evidence:  Some were very well known and other who I encountered others for the first time on the pages of the book.  As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of a recent encounter on this site in which I was asked what sort of evidence I would accept to explain the formation of the cosmos and the evolution of life on the planet earth such that I have concluded that nothing supernatural is required.  Shubin’s book is a catalog of the evidence and an explanation of how that evidence is gathered by individuals in various fields such as biology, paleontology, geology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, etc., and how that evidence deciphered so that we can know the world in which we live.
    The book was a quick read – mostly because Shubin is a very good writer and because the topic is so interesting.  This the second book written by Shubin that I read – a while back I read Your Inner Fish.  Now I’m about to begin Some Assembly Required, Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA.  I just obtained Some Assembly This afternoon and plan to begin reading it forthwith.  For anyone who hasn’t yet read Shubin, I highly recommend him, his work both highly informative and at the same time easy to digest and read.  If memory serves, I learned of Shubin’s work here on this site, and I thank those who discussed his work earlier.

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  • 188
    Michael 100 says:

    LaurieB, didn’t you love the story in Chapter 1 of Franz Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvas (1877-1933), known as Baron Nopcsa of Sacel – “… a man of intense passions and great intellect (whose) real dream was to assume the throne of Albania.  Sadly, his life ended when, after racking up large debts, he shot his lover then turned the gun on himself.”  The Baron finds himself on the pages of Shubin’s book because of his passion for collecting and writing about dinosaur bones which he discovered in Transylvania (where else?).  He (the Baron) wrote a seven-hundred-page tome on the geology of Albania. He was the first to observe from the fossil evidence that some dinosaurs would make excellent precursors to birds.  Although he was ignored at the time, his ideas were vindicated by further discoveries in 1997.  I won’t say more so as not to spoil other folks’ pleasure of reading the chapter, but Shubin has a remarkable talent for connecting the dots, in an entertaining but highly informative way, from Darwin to our present understanding.  I’m looking forward to a weekend of great reading.

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  • Michael 100

    I am always thoroughly amused by biographies of these interesting characters. To me, this is what makes science come alive.  Its a joy to learn science when the material is explained in an interesting narrative that includes the challenges, disappointments, friendships, rivalries and that moment where a collection of seemingly unrelated ideas comes together in a moment of thrilling realization. I’m very sure that Shubin himself has lived this very life. That wonderful Tiktaalic. Sigh.

    Great story about the Baron. It must have been thrilling to tag along with the guy. Never a dull moment.

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  • 190
    Michael 100 says:

    Some Assembly Required, Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA, by Neil Shubin.
    I enjoyed every page of this book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Dr. Shubin is the Robert B. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. 

    As Prof. Shubin traces the history of scientific knowledge as it relates to the evolution of life on the planet earth, he asks us to keep a couple things in mind – sort of keys which help unlock our understanding of the evidence.  First, there is Lillian Hellman’s admonition: “Nothing, of course, begins at the time you think it did.”  The other is Darwin’s insight that evolutionary change usually comes about as a result of a change of function.  Both of these ideas run through the narrative from beginning to end.
    The book is a proverbial page turner, it is really a joy to read.  Shubin is a great story teller – something that I noticed reading his other two books, The Universe Within and Your Inner Fish.  The book is dedicated to his parents, and Shubin explains that his father was a fiction writer who “did not find science easily digestible … If he enjoyed the narrative and appreciated the science, then I knew I was doing things right.  His presence remains on every page here.”  Shubin also credits his illustrator, Kalliopi Monoyios:  “She brings a passion for science and a keen eye for visual storytelling:  This book was no exception.” 

    No exception, indeed.  I can’t emphasize enough how much I enjoyed reading the stories, spanning several centuries, of how we have come to understand the principles of how life evolved.  This is the story of how we went from vague ideas of the origins of life in the 17th and 18th centuries (actually going back to the dawn of western civilization), to a scientific theory developed by Darwin and Wallace, to having the technological tools to understand messages/instructions encoded in the DNA of every cell of every living creature from the beginning of our planet.

    Shubin tells numerous stories of the men and women who brought us the knowledge that we take for granted today.  Some of those people are quite colorful.  In a previous post, #188 above, I mentioned Franz Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvas also known as Baron Nopcsa of Sacel.  Nopcsa helped us understand Shubin’s key points, 1) biological innovations don’t come about during great transitions, they come about as a result of a change of function; and 2) Nothing ever begins when you think it does.  This book is a chronical of the great men and women who have searched for and revealed to us the knowledge of our very existence.  I just can’t imagine anyone being board while reading these stories.
    In this age of COVID-19, I was interested to learn of the role viruses have played in our evolution.  Suffice it here to say, nothing ever begins where you think it does, and once again we see how a change of function can appear as new inventions.

    Anyone interested in learning about evolution of life would be well advised to put all three of Professor Shubin’s books on their reading lists.  Because of authors like Shubin, everyone today can understand things that the greatest minds of past centuries could only speculate about.

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    Today, 17th September is publication day (anglophone world outside America) of the paperback edition of Outgrowing God. Because of the virus I shall not be doing the usual round of interviews and events. If I were, I’m sure the first question I’d be asked is, “How is it different from The God Delusion?” I hope patrons of this admirable Book Club will forgive my using its forum to give the answer that I would have offered.

    The fundamental message of the two books is similar, but the books differ in both style and content.

    Style, because Outgrowing God is aimed at a younger audience. This doesn’t mean I try to use trendy language. I’d fall flat on my ageing face if I did. But if you were to do a statistical analysis of word frequencies of the two books (Google “Zipf’s Law” if that sort of thing interests you), you’d find that Outgrowing God uses fewer rare words – the tail of the distribution is shortened. Although The God Delusion has sold millions of copies in many languages (and is still selling well), I’ve been surprised at the number of readers who complained that they found the language too “academic” and begged me for a new edition for “the general reader”. Surprised, because I had thought it already was for “the general reader”: I had written it for what I had thought was a completely non-academic audience.  I took the request to heart, but was damned if I was simply going to re-write the same book in a different style.

    At the same time, I had long wanted to write a children’s book about religion, explaining what religion is to young children, and encouraging them to demand evidence of its claims from their religious parents and teachers. An illustrated first draft of the children’s book won the approval of various children that we tried it on, but unfortunately not the approval of publishers who were uneasily aware that small children don’t buy books  – parents and grandparents do it for them. They persuaded me to up the target age from children to teenagers.

    And this, of course, killed two birds with one stone. This was the way to satisfy the request for a book for “the general reader”. Though officially aimed at 16-year-olds, I believe Outgrowing God will sound less “academic” to all young people up to the age of 102 (which was the age of my mother when she laughed in all the right places).

    Now, to the content. Outgrowing God is not “God Delusion lite”. There’s actually rather little overlap of detail. There’s a lot more on the Bible, for instance. There’s the historical accident which led to the inclusion of the gospels of “Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke” and “John” (the quotes are because nobody knows who really wrote them), and the arbitrary exclusion of the fifty or so other gospels dating from around the same time. There’s the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, which tells the story from the point of view of the epically maligned disciple. His Great Betrayal was only fulfilling God’s (disgusting) purpose, which was that Jesus had to be crucified in order to redeem our sins, especially the Original Sin of Adam (who never existed but whose Great Sin we all inherit at birth). There’s the Infancy Gospel of Thomas with its piquant (now there’s a word that would never have made it out of the far tail of the distribution and into Outgrowing God) stories of the boy Jesus’s exploits. He used his magic powers to avenge a petty slight in the playground. Then when the parents of the dead child complained, he struck them blind. There are many other differences. And the whole second half of Outgrowing God is actually about science rather than religion, mostly evolution because so many young people are indoctrinated in the false religious alternative.

    So far, there’s no American paperback of Outgrowing God (publishers have tactical reasons for their timing, which differ from country to country). But the audio (read by me) and “Kindle” editions are available, as well as the hardback of course.

    Once again, my apologies to this Book Club’s regular votaries (there we go again) for my self-indulgence. But it is, after all, a book.

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  • Prof Dawkins

    I just downloaded it to my Kindle–a bit pricey, and I don’t really need any additional convincing to remain a non-theist, but I do enjoy your writing!

    This 62-year-old youngster looks forward to reading it! 🙂

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  • Lincoln, a Novel by Gore Vidal. 

    A few weeks (maybe it was months) ago I was reading some of the essays in Christopher Hitchens’ book Arguably.  In the opening paragraphs of a discussion of Michael Burlingame’s two volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, Hitchens mentioned Gore Vidal’s book and called it Vidal’s finest novel.  I’ve wanted to read it for several years, but somehow other works always got pushed ahead of it.  On Christopher’s recommendation, I resolved to remedy the situation and checked out an electronic copy from my local library.

    I know this gets a bit long winded, but here and in the next paragraph, I’d like to share a bit of background of why I enjoyed the  novel so much.   1990, Ken Burns produce a series about the American Civil War.  One of the experts in that work was Shelby Foote, a journalist, writer and historian.  It made a deep impression on me when Foote explained that any understanding of the United States must be based on an understanding of the Civil War.  Foote said that the Civil War defined us, and it opened us to be the country we became – a different country than it was before the War.  Foot’s said:  “It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads”  Foote also said:  “Before the war, it was said ‘the United Sates are’ – grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states.  And after the war it was always ‘the United Sates is’, as we say today without being self-conscious at all.  And that sums up what the war accomplished.  It made us an ‘is’.
    Foote’s ideas became even more clear a few years later when I read a biography of Henry A. Wallace, entitled American Dreamer by former U.S. Senator John C. Culver and journalist John Hyde.  Wallace was the scion of an influential Iowa family.  When Henry A was a child his father was a professor at Iowa State University where Georg W. Carver was also teaching.  Carver, who had been born into slavery, would take Henry A. on nature walks, and Carver instilled in the child a love of plants.  Wallace began to experiment with corn – one of Iowa’s two major cash crops – and eventually developed hybrid seed corn.  The company that he founded became Pioneer Seed Corn.  Henry A. eventually became the editor of Wallace’s Farmer, an influential agricultural journal.  The Wallace family had always been Republicans – the party of Abraham Lincoln.  However, during the Great Depression, it became clear to Henry A. that the policies of the Republican party were making the depression worse and were harming the people, including the farmers, of America.  He therefore broke with the Republicans and urged his readers to vote for the Democrat, Franklyn D. Roosevelt.  After the election, Roosevelt asked Henry A. to go to Washington and become the Secretary of Agriculture – a post he held in the first two Administrations.  Henry A Wallace was the Vice President of the United States in the Third Roosevelt administration.  Because of his progressive views, particularly about desegregation and civil rights, the southern delegates blocked his nomination to be vice president in the fourth administration.  Interestingly enough, it was President Truman, the candidate chosen by the southern delegates who desegregated the armed forces of the Unites States – but that’s another story.  After reading Culver’s book, I must have read at least ten others about the Roosevelt era, and I was amazed by the connections that the people in the Administration, the Congress, and the US Supreme Court had to the Civil War.   Many of the congressmen had direct ties to the war.  Few, if any fought, but their fathers, older brothers and uncles were veterans or causalities of the War between the States.  Truly, Foote hit the nail on the head when he emphasized the importance of an understanding of the American Civil War.

    Gore Vida’s novel begins with Abraham Lincoln arriving in Washington after having been elected President.  Lincoln had been in Washington before, as a congressman.  There’s a funny story, in the novel told by Mary Todd Lincoln.  When Lincoln was campaigning for the seat, his opponent was a Methodist preacher who accused Lincoln of being and infidel.  One night, Lincoln went to a church service the preacher was conducting.  When the preacher saw Lincoln sitting in the back of the church he decided to trap Lincoln by asking the congregation to indicate if the expected to go to heaven or to hell, when Lincoln wouldn’t take the bait, the preacher asked him point blank where he thought he was going, to which Lincoln responded “Well, I expect to go to Congress.”  There are a few other humorous stories in the novel, but most are not completed – Lincoln would begin, “well, that reminds me of the story about …” but most of the time the story would end with ellipses rather than a punch line.
    Was Lincoln an Atheist?  Probably not.  Probably he shared the Deist views of the Founders. He was not superstitious, and he eschewed, as much as possible public displays of religion or the invocation of the deity, although it crept in from time to time.

    Was Lincoln homosexual or bisexual?  I can remember some years ago there was speculation that because of reports of Lincoln sharing his bed with other men. The conclusion was that there must have been something sexual going on.  In the first place, at that time most young men were not paid very much, and they frequently shared accommodations, including the bed on which two or even three slept – it was the norm.  The story is told of a time in 1839 or ’40, when Lincoln asked a friend where he might find a young lady.  A meeting was arranged, services were provided after which Lincoln asked about the charge.  When informed that the usual charge was $5.00, Lincoln informed the lady that he had only three.  She said she would trust him for the remaining two, but Lincoln said he preferred not to have any debt, did not want to cheat her.  He asked if she would settle for what he had.  She declined and responded: “Mr. Lincoln, you are the most conscientious man I ever saw.”  Lincoln went his way and she went hers.  The story concluded:  “He was young, once.  Just like you… but then he married that woman, and he has been true as steel to her ever since … He was – is – a man of powerful passions when it comes to women, but powerful control over himself …” 
    Although he is known as the Great Emancipator, one cannot close Gore’s novel, or any other work on the subject, without knowing that Lincoln was a reluctant abolitionist.  Lincoln shared the view of those who thought that after the War the entire population of former slaves should be sent to a colony either in South America or Africa.  Lincoln was very much in favor of compensation – to the slave owners for the loss of their property.  I lost count of how many times that sentiment was expressed by the 16th president of the United States.  I kept asking myself:  “What about compensation for the forced labor of millions of people?”  That question never really came up.  Lincoln’s objective was to preserve the union, no matter the cost.  Once he was asked if he would favor giving freed Negroes the vote to which he responded:  “The very intelligent ones, I suppose.”  During this conversation, the President said that his views had evolved such that “like it or not,” he and the Republican party “must be abolitionist.”  During a meeting with several “Negro leaders,” during which Lincoln told them of the forthcoming emancipation proclamation, Lincoln said:  “… Your race suffers very greatly; many of them by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence.  In a word, we suffer on each side … If this is admitted, it affords a reason, at least, why we should be separated …”  After the leaders left, Lincoln said to his secretary, John Hay: “Why would any colored man want to live in this country, where there is so much hatred of him?”  Hay opined that perhaps the animosity would disappear once slavery was gone, but Lincoln responded: “There are passions too deep for even a millennium to efface.”  At one point, David Herold, a rebel spy who lived in Washington, D.C, noted that the Union soldiers were preparing to kill the Negro’s encamped outside of the city.  “Like most natives of Washington, David had been amazed by the Union soldiers’ hatred of all Negroes.  By and large, Southerners got on well with them.  After all, they grew up with “n…r”s; and they liked – even loved – the ones who kept their place.  But the Yankees seemed to hate the very idea of blackness; proof to David that Yankees tended to be a bit on the crazy side.”
    In the Afterword, Vidal explains that most of the dialog between Lincoln and the other historical figures, was reconstructed from letters, journals, newspapers, diaries, etc.    

    Well, I’d better stop here.  I could go on and on but suffice it to say that Vidal’s book is very helpful to understand Shelby Foote’s comments.  If, like me, you have postponed reading the novel, I highly recommend it.  Apologies for the length, but appreciation for your kind attention. 

  • As I mentioned in # 195, I was reminded of my intention to read Gore Vidal’s Lincoln when reading an essay written by Christopher Hitchens.  Having finished Vidal’s novel and posting some of my impressions, I decided to pay my respects to Hitchens by reading his last book, Mortality.  In Chapter II, he writes about how he reacted to those who offered prayers on his behalf; those who prayed for him to see the light and embrace salvation, and; to those who thought his illness was some sort of divine retribution.  I hope I long remember these words:  “I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”
    Reading that chapter, I was reminded of an interview, more likely than not on National Public Radio, I heard  years ago with Michael Harrington, an American Socialist and renegade catholic, who made no secret of his atheism.  Harrington died of cancer in 1989.  When the interviewer asked him if his illness caused him to consider returning to religion, Harrington replied that he had been an atheist most of his adult life and he was very comfortable as such.  I can’t, of course, remember his precise words, but I remember that it was something to the effect that it would be the height of intellectual dishonesty for him to now consider the possibility of a god on the eve of his death.  In 1989, I suppose it still made some sense to think that an atheist might want to reconsider when faced with imminent death.  Among the contributions made by the New Atheists was letting people know that we are on solid ground, scientifically, philosophically, culturally, etc., in our rejection of religious delusions.

    By the way, I hope I’m not the only one with a library card — seems like a long time since much activity in The Book Club. I love getting recommendations about things to read. I keep them all on my cerebral roll-a-dex. Next on my list is one that Phil recommended some time ago, The Arrival of the Fittest.

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