• By Jeffrey Tayler

    “I’m not a Muslim because I think Islam is more right” (than other religions), the media personality and scholar of religions Reza Aslan told Oprah on a recent episode of Super Soul Sunda […]

    • This is a timely reminder that Islam (or any super dogmatic religion) described simply as benign is a terrible failure at moral improvement. Indeed it cloaks any need to, probably worsening matters by not creating a need to change.

      Such claims of niceness has to confront its nastiness also. It has to say morally, we followers of the faith could do so much better…

      Being kind, he may think he is with the good guys, but he is a moral coward.

    • Pinball, you don’t understand; religions don’t have problems! That’s part of their appeal.

    • I have emailed my MP on numerous occasions, on the subject of circumcision. All western democracies should forbid bits to be hacked off children under an ancient “blood-sacrifice” rule. Obviously, when adult – if a person wants to be mutilated in such a way – then they should have to pay for the privilege! and obviously, male circumcision needed for clinical reasons should be performed on the NHS.
      UK law still allows baby boys to be mutilated – it’s a BLOODY disgrace!

    • @OP – By “languages” Aslan meant religions, he pointed out. He also fessed up to not praying five times a day. A “profession of faith” such as Aslan’s — that Islam is just one “language” of many, neither necessarily more nor less valid than any other

      Ah! But when looking through faith-blinkers, words can mean anything a believer wants them to mean! Humpty-Dumpytism lives on!

    • Further to my last @ 3, ‘religions don’t have problems’; they only cause them.

    • I think the fact that Reza Azlan is an Islamic scholar puts him at a huge disadvantage; it renders him almost incapable of debating the subject because he lacks any objectivity.

      You may as well ask a junkie to have a rational discussion about their habit when they’re high.

      He, like many of his ilk, doesn’t so much debate as recite from within a monumental comfort fortress.

      The only “qualification” he and others like him possess is having learnt stuff by rote; stuff they can dip into as the occasion demands ; bespoke responses.

    • I took a few weeks to digest an English translation of the Quran. It was with out a doubt the most appalling series of ignorant claptrap I have ever read. Repetitive dark-age bullshit that isn’t even good literature! If it is the inerrant word of god – then he truly is an ignorant and insufferable dullard! If it was compared to other classical literature it would suffer and be shown up for the complete garbage that it is. At least Monty python took biblical themes and gave us the incomparable “Life of Brian” , wonder why they never lampooned Mo?

    • M27Holts. @ # 13.

      I concur entirely; it’s not unlike Mein Kampf; tautological tosspottery!

      I don’t suppose you came across any references to Quantum Mechanics in it did you? Aparrently, some Muslims have been led to believe that that particular branch of the sciences was prophesied in the Qur’an.

      If Python had lampooned Mo they’d all probably be as dead as their famous Parrot by now.

      Although rather hard going, the King James Bible is beautifully written; it took seven years to translate it from the Latin; well worth the time I think.

    • Stafford @ #14.
      I read Mein Kampf when I was 18 or so years old. And it was tortuous bullshit, even to my developing mind!
      Mind you, I was forced to read “Tess of the d’urbervilles” at secondary school – and that’s the worst literature-based torture I have had to endure outside reading religious drivel of course!
      Oh – No Mention of Hilbert space in the Qur’an – unless it was expressed as – Beat your wife when she has exposed an eyebrow to a strange man!

    • M27Holts #15
      Jun 1, 2016 at 7:05 am

      unless it was expressed as – Beat your wife when she has exposed an eyebrow to a strange man!

      In countries where women are contained indoors or enclosed in black bags, aren’t whole areas infested with “strange men”?

    • So… the actual doctrine regarding how one worships (praying five times a day, facing mecca, etc) is irrelevant to those that are devout, which Reza seems to indicate he is? The notion that the Quran is the perfect and final word of God is more of a suggestion or vague and harmless idea?

      This is what happens when someone is peddling diluted version of an idea: sidestepping and backtracking to agree with those outside of their faith (provided the persons in question have a faith of their own, of course!) and simply ignoring the insidious and malevolent repercussions of the doctrine itself.

      Now if Reza actually had sway where it counted and the more volatile of Islam actually cared at all about him or his ideas this might actually be beneficial to bringing Islam to the mainstream and focusing less on the violent and dangerous ideologies therein. It wouldn’t change whole countries that subscribe to this drivel, but it would at least be a step to the middle, where much of Christianity lies today (though a dangerously devout strain will always remain, it seems).

      But in actuality he’s little more than a author looking for attention for his unintelligible ideas on the big stage, like any other. It fascinates me that he writes a book trying to disprove the historicity of Christ but makes no mention of the lack of historicity of the teaching of his own religion, to say nothing of Mohammed himself.

      Taking his entire public persona into account the message appears to be more like: Oh I don’t think my religion is better or more right than yours, accept where it is and that I totally am. Like far too many other religious figures who have no leg to stand on, which is to say all of them.

    • Pinball #19 – Well, let’s face it, a historical narrative of Mo’s life / actions would be a lot easier to re-create using 21st century social interactions – But as for the bible – where would we be able to find three wise men and a virgin?

    • bonnie2 @ # 16.

      Thanks a lot; a “classic” indeed; great fun!

    • Pinball #23.
      You must be slightly younger than me – I was 14 in 1979 and did indeed go to see LOB (I went to the Manchester Odeon, and had to endure some fairly harsh abuse from a bunch of reasonably fundamentalist xtians who were picketing the cinema! I went to a secondary/modern non religious school (but which was still nominally CofE xtian) – and we had a religious teacher who got in a scuffle with some of the science teachers who were quoting from the film and taking the piss. When we heard this we also took the piss and he got very irate and refused to teach us “pagans” – which was good – I did my maths homework instead!

    • M27Holts #24
      Jun 3, 2016 at 7:32 am

      When we heard this we also took the piss and he got very irate and refused to teach us “pagans”

      The use of the term “Pagans” by Catholic priests and some of their followers to describe non-Catholics, is of course an indication of tribalistic bigotry, and a profound ignorance of European pre-Christian religions!

    • Maher’s speech is as ever dangerously broad at times, but Reza’s enormous omissions of the genuine statistical correlations is what continues to make him a moral coward.

      The FGM practise may well have come from African tribal traditions, but its adoption specifically into the ideological memeplex of Islam can be seen as wildly successful, much more so than by geographical proximity. (Look at the rates in Indonesia, Malaysia etc.) It may be the devalued status of women and their role as sexual agent provocateurs that so fits them for this physical and mental disfigurement.

      The correct response to FGM from a Moral Muslim is to say this is not a part of Islam. Islam has been infected very widely by it and it needs to be fixed, as is happening in Iran etc. etc.

      Evidence and reason, folks.

    • 5

      “Mind you, I was forced to read “Tess of the d’urbervilles” at secondary school – and that’s the worst literature-based torture I have had to endure outside reading religious drivel of course!”

      Are you kidding? Tess? One of the best literary experiences I have had. Thomas Hardy, a beautiful, gentle man, was one of the all time great literary artists. Jude the Obscure is one of the finest, most powerful and disturbing novels of all times. I felt the need to say that, but to each his own.

      FGM. According to one Africanist that I know – a serious scholar, btw: to say that that barbaric practice started in Africa “is as wrong as saying it is innately Muslim. These practices are reborn and underwritten in every generation.”

      I read part of the Koran and was bored. But maybe it’s my own Tess of the d’Urburvilles.

    • I am calling Maher occasionally dangerous. Careless formulations of his over-accuse folk.

      I am calling Reza morally delinquent here. (‘ 1: 02 “[FGM] is not an Islamic problem it is an African problem”)

      The generalised over accusing of palpable, existent crimes has not the same moral consequence as the generalised over defending of palpable, existent crimes. Political consequences are another matter again.

    • Thomas Hardy. Such beautiful prose. Such beautiful landscape. Melvyn Bragg considers it Whtimanesque.

      Sadly only for we Brits…

    • The moral over-enthusiasm of the former contrasts with the moral deficit of the latter. Reza is a moral coward.

    • Sorry, Olgun.

      Got distracted editting #34.

      I think Maher is generally dangerous on a number of topics (not least pharmacy). I wouldn’t call his position here as much as I know it, “equally dangerous”. But then Reza’s position isn’t dangerous as such, simply spectacularly negligent given his platform.

    • Hey Pinball,

      No. Not polar opposites, necessarily. We just disagree about Hardy. My most painful literary experience was Heart of Darkness.

      Phil, No one loves Hardy more than me. And he’s been loved by many here. Why do you say: “only for us Brits”?

      Reza Aslan. Not sure what to make of him. He told Harris that he “appreciated his intellectuality.” So patronizing. Then he proceeded to insult him, kept saying he was unsophisticated. Harris the Stoic didn’t seem to mind. I Love Harris (most of the time).

    • Dan

      The link was to a BBC program called In Our Time. a 45 minute discussion between, typically, 3 academics and Melvyn Bragg, author and TV presenter of cultural/arts programs. Science, history, and the arts are all in there and a huge back catalogue of programs available to download. Its a fantatic resource I and my kids have used to get up to speed on specifics very quickly. As an unscripted but organised live discussion there is dissent which is particularly useful.

      I had thought the programs were not available outside the UK hence my comment. I’m delighted that Bonnie has found them, in fact, to be available in the US at least. You’ll find tasters of all the arts through philosophy and physics to Zoroastrianism.

      All paid for by my TV license fee.

      Your welcome….

      On literature I find my interest in some of it hugely amplified by knowing something of the authors and their reasons for writing.

      The only one this doesn’t work on is Dickens. This is soap opera working at the lowest levels of human insight. He was a better journalist and possibly great reading his own stuff on stage.

    • So does “progressive” Reza Aslan think that Allah split the moon in two, that Muhamed rode on a winged horse to heaven, and that salt water and fresh water don’t mix ?

    • Phil,


      Was struck by your comment about Dickens. Well, we can’t always agree.

      Dickens the best, the greatest. No one can touch him. Little Dorrit? Our Mutual Friend? Dombey and Son?

      I don’t understand you sometimes.

    • @ Bonnie2 37

      A lot of censorship in ‘Jude’ too. With someone like Hardy you have to read the history of the text first and make sure you have an edition that has the most original stuff in it.

      There’s a chapter that simply suggests that two people had spent the night together. Censored.

      We could go back to that. We’ll start censoring again, and banning things left and right if we’re not careful. It could happen. This site will be the first thing to go. It’s really frightening and depressing when you think about things like that.

    • Dan, #44

      As someone who desired a little extra help to see inside other people’s heads more reliably, (as reliably as I wished, at least), I found many novelists gave honest and helpful insight. Dickens’ gaudy caricatures, though entertaining, chilling and comical, helped me little given the cost of investment in them. Introspection was never really his thing….

    • @ Phil! 46

      (Yes, let’s forget about the extremists for a second. They should all read Dickens.)

      No!!That’s inaccurate!! Dickens had tremendous depth. (Nancy and the pimp?) Many of his characters (and their relationships) – and this includes the minor characters – were very complex. He had great sweeping power. Tremendous humanity. Some caricatures, I supposes. But it works. Introspection? What does that mean? What’s the literary purpose of introspection? Dickens himself had tons of it.

      Eugene in Our Mutual Friend, Mr. Dombey, Copperfield and his sinister friend and the friend’s sister, Mr. Clennam, the guy in Tale of Two Cities, Nickelby, Miss Wade (“The self hater”) —The list goes on and on and on. None of these are caricatures.

      Memorable, funny, moving… Read the chapter where Dombey’s son dies. (“What the Waves were always Saying”) No one else can do that. No one. Read his description of the storm in Copperfield or about DC’s depression. Dickens was greater than Tolstoy, I think, struck a deeper level, was a humorist too, made us laugh at ourselves. He alone had the power to stir me and the word to the depths and make us laugh and cry. I am disappointed in you, my friend. Read Little Dorrit, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son. Read them. Read them all. That’s an order.

      The Old Curiosity Shop. Not that good. I’ve read all of Dickens. That’s the only bad one. Read The Pickwick Papers too. That’s an Order.

    • Dan,

      I always appreciate your passion, and thanks for your urgent recommendations. Perhaps I need to give a slightly more detailed account of myself. I went to read Dickens in my teens and never since. Then I was decidedly more aspie than I am now. Its why I felt I needed to succeed as an actor. I suspect if I have wronged him it is because I couldn’t trust him (or perhaps trust myself) to sieve the true from the too true. Proust was his polar opposite for me, and Hardy, no entertaining tricks, just a search for copper-bottomed truth about life on the inside.

      If my busy reading schedule allows, I’ll give one of your recommendations a shot. It might be a good test of whether I have managed to become a real boy after all.

    • @Phil


      I understand that you’re busy. If you can find the time now to read just one – a chapter a night? – I’d recommend Little Dorrit.

      Mr. Arthur Clennam:

      “I am the son, Mr. Meagles, of a hard father and mother. I am the only child of parents who weighed, measured, and priced everything; for whom what could not be weighed, measured, and priced, had no existence. Strict people as the phrase is, professors of a stern religion, their very religion was a gloomy sacrifice of tastes and sympathies that were never their own, offered up as a part of a bargain for the security of their possessions. Austere faces, inexorable discipline, penance in this world and terror in the next–nothing graceful or gentle anywhere, and the void in my cowed heart everywhere–this was my childhood, if I may so misuse the word as to apply it to such a beginning of life.”

    • HaHa – now I have opened the proverbial can of worms….
      1. All you Dickens fans, why have I never been invited to any?
      2. Hardy, Bronte (Sisters), Austin and D.H. Lawrence – books of such turgidity! – compare to the real genius (Heller, Vonnegut, Asimov, Pratchett, Adams (Douglas) and the incomparable Mark Twain).

      Suppose it’s all subjective though…..

    • I think the Monty Python Life of Brian nailed the problem up with this one scene. It’s always had an impact on me.

    • 50, 51

      Re: Reason (and final comment by me about the marvelous Charles Dickens on this thread, although this comment is more about Reason).

      I find it incredible that so many people on this site are so quick to judge, condemn, and reject. Name all the books by Dickens that you’ve read in their entirety! Be honest now. You can say he’s bad but first READ THE GUY!!

      (I’ve read all of Dickens.)

      Same with philosophy. No one’s read Schopenhauer (except maybe a few) but you all disagree with him.

      Maybe I’ll convert to Protestantism out of spite. Disgusted right now.

      Beginning of Bleak House. Not a bad opening to a novel, wouldn’t you say? (Submitted as evidence)

      London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, 40 feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

      Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

      Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time – as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

      The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

    • Fair enough, Pinball. Sorry. I can be a touch stridently assertive at times.
      I love Dickens. That’s all that matters.
      We agree about Trump and religion, if I am not mistaken.
      What do you think of this guy Aslan? I watched the debate w/ Harris for a second time. He manages to say very little with a lot of words. I am now convinced that he has a forked tongue, as they say. Not a fan.

      M27Holts, I love Asimov (and have read all of the sci-fi novels except Nemesis, the first Foundation novel, and the ones that he co-authored), and revere Twain. (Cannibalism in the Cars. One of the funniest stories ever written.) Ever read The Last Question? Aslan has, I am sure. He’s a very erudite man. (LOL)

    • But, Dan, this is all the surface, rich, gaudy (lovely, unsettling but…) stuff. Where does he look into minds and shock you with new understanding?

    • 55

      I don’t know, Phil.

    • 58,

      H’m field of “Theology” – as all humanities (except real-historical accounts) – non-subjects all!
      I’m with pin-ball, I rarely read fiction at the moment and most of the classic books I was made to read at school betwixt 1976-1983 – I do read a lot of science/history now. most of my personal novel reading was done between 1976 and 2000. Since I have read mostly sci-fi and Fantasy but only about 2 or three books per year! I found the classics to be turgid and with no relevance to the modern ethos/zeitgeist I lived in. I was very amused with them even though they were not meant to be comical (that did annoy my English teachers though).

    • Dan #57

      This is what I meant about introspection, and what I wanted from novelists. I didn’t want entertaining, As a nerd before there were nerds, I wanted informing. I wanted problems revealed. I wanted exactly the problems of choosing and acting, of understanding the other, of distinguishing culpable and non-culpable folly…. I still want this.

    • Phil,

      You didn’t find what you were looking for. I understand.
      But why denigrate it? Not simply entertainment; it’s art, and it’s elevating and enriching.
      The crap we see in the movies, and the manipulative prose, the best sellers; that’s entertainment.
      Yes, Dickens needed to make a living, but so did Shakespeare.

    • High school gave me an aversion to Dickens, Shakespeare, Bronte, Orwell and anyone else we were forced to read. It took years to recover, and discover merit in any of them.

      I’ve yet to tackle Dickens and Bronte, just haven’t gotten round to it. The Dickens passages Dan quoted I find promising, so maybe I’ve just found some new (to me) bedtime reading. Thanks Dan.

    • Dan,

      I intend not a shred of disrespect towards Dickens. There is not a single thing wrong with being both entertaining or a retrospective documentarist/journlist writer of monthly soap opera. The nearest he was approached in the twentieth century, I maintain were the first years of the 1960 UK soap Coronation Street. In its first years sneered at by London critics but loved by the public for its honest portrayal of a matriarchal, working class, industrial society already in decline, already nostalgic and tragic, with some of the greatest writing and character acting for decades on TV. I judge good soap opera of the highest function in society. It is first and formeost a moral debate society has with itself. The innocent and the guilty are judged the next day by the viewers as they discover each others’ opinions. Lofty and important stuff.

      In my description of it I am trying to show what it is not. It is not the study of an individual, of a mind, of how to live in your own skin.

    • You do yourself a disservice, Phil.

    • Pin,

      I admire and enjoy great writing. I thoroughly approve of Soap Opera. When the Archers had its first gay storyline and this most recent domestic violence thread I was in awe of A, the quality of its work and B, its obvious reach and influence. These were moments of palpable national moral progress. One of Dicken’s greatest achievements was to cement our great sentimental revulsion for the state of childhood transgressed or denied. Childhood had been a moral invention (of the English particularly) from the early eighteenth century. Dickens completed and summarised its implications.

      My point is that huge as this process is, as something of an aspie, these clearly rational moral aspirations don’t need selling to me. I approve as an onlooker, without partaking. I need rather those French, Russian and English novels that teach me about living in my skin and how brains feel as an owner of one.

      My continual education in discussion groups is the speed and certainty of people’s judgment of others and the imputation of motives from my clearly scant profered evidence. I continually fail to understand how little I have actually described my own mind and how obliging others are to complete that process for me. I need to re-learn this every day…I feel a novel coming on…

    • 65

      Why do you call it Soap Opera? (Soap Opera, in America at least, is dull and never takes you anywhere.) It’s nothing of the kind. And why do you continue to critique someone you are not acquainted with, that you haven’t even glanced at for many years? How do you know what his greatest achievements are, Phil? You know nothing of Dickens’ work. What did you read, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, in your teens – and my quote above from Little Dorrit? Well the majority of his novels do not deal with childhood per se, fyi.

      Then again, you are entitled to your assumptions. I am not interested in Aslan or anything he has to say. Admittedly, I’ve merely heard him speak. He’s not part of my world.

      “I went to read Dickens in my teens and never since.” P.R.


    • Phil (#66). I think you are right – comparing Dickens (an example) to soap opera! I have spoken with Tony Warren (before he recently died, he was a regular in a Swinton Holt’s house called “The Cricketers Arms” and reputedly the pub that the rovers return is based upon) and he despaired on the fact that modern soap opera had become a parody of itself years ago. Mind you, the Manchester suburb that he described in his creation of “Coronation street” has become a far different place – and I suppose the modern programme reflects those changes!
      I can’t stand soap opera by the way – so it’s not surprising I don’t really like historical classics and human-interest novels of an age long-extinct!

    • Dan, #67

      “Soap Opera”, most because of how it was written and published in periodic chunks and started in publication often without the full narrative being resolved. My soap references where not aimed at you and I doubt you will have experiences in the US, similar to the UK. The Archers a radio soap, the quintessence of English middle class experience, will possibly prove one of the great documents of our social history. I think the cultural snobbery that greeted the first UK soaps is now more cautious and though still happy to see “Crossroads” thoroughly lampooned as tosh, it is now much more able to acknowledge a genuine cultural significance in some of the others.”

      The three Dickens that stand out in my memory as fully completed readings are of course Oliver Twist, then Hard Times and Sketches by Boz. I have started and abandoned maybe five others. (I have all of Dickens.) I have seen and enjoyed all the TV dramatisations. (Their Readers Digested versions don’t have me feeling my life is slipping away.)

      I appear to have seen all UK TV productions in this list after about 1985 and some before.

      I read Peter Ackroyd’s magisterial biography of Dickens, have seen a couple of biographical documentaries, saw Miriam Margolyes brilliant one woman show about “Dickens’ Women” and once was involved in a theatre production of a dramatised “Hard Times” a long time ago in Leicester.

      I know the man pretty well. I am not, however, a Dickens scholar.

    • M27 #68

      Tony Warren’s imitators had neither his skill, his wit, nor his taste.

      Look at the quality of the writers he/they used…

      Jack Rosenthal,

      Peter Eckersley,

      Jimmy McGovern,

      Frank Cotrell Boyce,

      Russel T Davies,

      Class acts all.

    • The topic of fiction novels and soap operas has reminded me of a section of S. Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. On page 174 he explains the effect that increased literacy rates had in the late 1700’s and throughout the 1800’s with the boom in book publishing and other types of media and their availability to the general public at that time on the ability of feel empathy for others.

      From the book, page 174:

      The growth of writing and literacy strikes me as the best candidate for an exogenous change that helped set off the Humanitarian Revolution. The pokey little world of village and clan, accessible though the five senses and informed by a single content provider, the church, gave way to a phantasmagoria of people, places, cultures, and ideas. And for several reasons, the expansion of people’s minds could have added a dose of humanitarianism to their emotions and their beliefs.


      The human capacity for compassion is not a reflex that is triggered automatically by the presence of another living thing. As we shall see in chapter 9, though people in all cultures can react sympathetically to kin, friends,and babies, they tend to hold back when it comes to larger circles of neighbors, strangers, foreigners, and other sentient beings. In his book The Expanding Circle, the philosopher Peter Singer has argued that over the course of history, people have enlarged the range of beings whose interests they value as they value their own. An interesting question is what inflated the empathy circle. And a good candid is the expansion of literacy.

      Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. As we shall see, “empathy” in the sense of adopting someone’s viewpoint is not the same as “empathy” in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first can lead to the second by a natural route. Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own. It’s not a big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people’s words could put one in the habit of entering other people’s minds, including their pleasures and pains. Slipping even for a monument into the perspective of someone who is turning black in a pillory or desperately pushing burning faggots away from her body or convulsing under the two hundredth stroke of the lash may give a person second thoughts as to whether these cruelties should ever be visited upon anyone.


      page 176:

      The philosophes of the Enlightenment extolled the way novels engaged a reader’s identification with and sympathetic concern for others. In his eulogy for Richardson, Diderot wrote:

      “One takes, despite all precautions, a role in his works, you are thrown into conversation, you approve, you blame, you admire, you become irritated, you feel indignant. How many tines did I not surprise myself, as it happens to children who have been taken to the theater for the first time, crying: “Don’t believe it, he is deceiving you.” …His characters are taken from ordinary society…the passions he depicts are those I feel in myself. (139)”

      The clergy, of course, denounced these novels and placed several on the Index of Forbidden Books. One Catholic cleric wrote, “Open these works and you will see in almost all of them the rights of divine and human justice violated, parents’ authority over their children scorned, the sacred bonds of marriage and friendship broken.” (140)

      page 177:

      But the full-strength causal hypothesis may be more than a fantasy of English teachers. The ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century. And in some cases a bestselling novel or memoir demonstrably exposed a wide range of readers to the suffering of a forgotten class of victims and led to a change in policy.


      Pinker goes on to list the books that changed the way people thought and led to change. They are:

      Uncle Tom’s Cabin – abolitionists in the US
      Oliver Twist 1838 – and Nicholas Nickelby 1839 – mistreatment of children in British workhouses and orphanages
      Two Years before the Mast: A Personal narrative of Life at Sea 1840 and White Jacket (Melville) – helped end flogging of sailors.

      All Quiet on the Western Front,
      Darkness at Noon
      One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,
      To Kill a Mockingbird
      Slaughterhouse Five
      Red Azalea
      Reading Lolita in Tehran
      Possessing the Secret of Joy – FGM

      Pinker- page 177 “all raised public awareness of the suffering of people who might otherwise have been ignored. Cinema and television reached even larger audiences and offered experiences that were even more immediate.”

      ~End of material from the book.~

      The ability of books and other media to influence us to bring forth our “better angels” is exactly what I’m counting on to bring about positive social change in the developing countries and I’m really thinking about Muslim majority countries right now. The internet is going to create a social revolution there as well as satellite TV access with soap operas that demonstrate humanitarian values to the whole family on prime time TV. This is all underway and the kids, teens and 20 somethings that are being brought up on Western media material are taking it all in.

      Look at the effect it had in this part of the world:

      “However, said Singhal, the intentional placement of educational messages in mass media is relatively recent. Within television, many experts pin the origin to a Peruvian telenovela called “Simplemente María” (“Simply Maria”), which aired in 1969. The show, which ran five nights a week for two years, followed the story of María, a humble farmer who migrated to the city and began working as a maid. Through hard work and determination, she learned how to read and sew, and eventually became a famous fashion designer. The show became so popular that when María married her literacy teacher Esteban on the show, 10,000 fans gathered outside the church where the wedding sequence was being shot, dressed in their Sunday best and ready with gifts for the “newlyweds.” Enrollment in literacy classes shot through the roof soon after the show aired, as did sales of Singer sewing machines.”

      Et-hem. I sense that I am somewhat off topic here but the discussion of the value of certain soap operas and novels above did prompt me to produce this comment. If it’s completely annoying then just delete it. No hard feelings. 🙂

    • Olgun #73

      Your account sounds very like my experience. The language is astonishing at first encounter, the richest and yummiest of soups, but its recipe is one you can easily pick up and indeed…er…pastiche.

      I was a moderate fan of Bleak Expectations until I twigged its own recipe.

      It is why I don’t like Soap Opera as much as I admire and respect them. When a zeitgeist thing is flagged (recently the Rob and Helen story) I become an avid listener until I have its measure.

      Breaking Bad, though with a little acting repetitiveness, I thought was a writers show case of a truly sustained inventiveness.

    • Fabulous post, Laurie. This is exactly why these sustained narratives can come to represent our moral discussions with ourselves. We engage in the stories emotionally, we notice harms we never saw before or imagined, and we rehearse for ourselves what we would do or say. One key virtue of these highly popular extended narratives (Dickens and earnest soap opera) is the public debate and arguing our differing positions with each other in some kind of real time.

      Novels too, serve this end, though their effects become longer term…..

    • @Laurie, Olgun, Phil

      Phil, you like comments that fit your occasionally rigid way of looking at things, don’t you? (You’ve managed to infuriate me, Phil. I can understand your position regarding Kant, but not your attitude about Dickens: the most able, the most humane, the most gifted and imaginative and original, life-changing writers of all times!!)

      What does Pinker know about which books changed people’s thoughts and led to change? There’s no definitive list.— Give me a break. There are so many others. So many!

      Literature, like all genuine art, should do more than entertain; it should enlighten, elevate and make us think and feel, enrich us, enrich us with the gift of memory, and disturb us too. Better angels? If you like that, fine.

      I’ve read all of Melville, read White Jacket, and Pierre and The Confidence Man and Redburn and Mardi, Typee, Omoo. Also read Billy Budd and Moby Dick, which are better or deeper than White jacket, but neither led to the end of executions or whale hunting. You don’t judge a novel that way. Did Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead end the cruel treatment of prisoners? The book White Jacket did have something to do with the end of “flogging” but that is an exception to the rule, and not the function of the novel, per se.

      What about Henry Miller? One could say that his novels marked the end, the residual end, of the Victorian era once and for all. He didn’t make Pinker’s list.

      What is this nonsense about soaps? Why are we into soaps? Dickens is the opposite of the soap opera! He is deep, and profound, a true artist and entertainer (in that precise order). What is the matter with all of you? Soaps? Who brought that up and why? Read Our Mutual Friend! Read Little Dorrit! (And no skimming.) Then tell me he was superficial and gaudy, for heaven’s sake. Soaps! I can’t bear to hear such nonsense! Dickens! Soaps! Perhaps you can’t tell the difference. Sad indeed.

      The day I finished my last Dickens novel was a sad day indeed.

    • @ Phil 67

      P.S. You can’t jude the books by the television productions (or by reading a biography). The only good one they ever did was in 1983, of Dombey and Son, with James Glover. That was a long, detailed series and it tried to stay faithful to the novel. That was about as good as you’ll ever get, and even that didn’t come close to the novel. Too entirely different mediums. The movies I can live without. Plays. Musicals Forget it. I have nothing against that. But that’s watered down Dickens. Has to be. Dickens was a serious writer, okay? A serious novelist.

      You can’t say you know Dickens unless you read more than Twist. Sketches by Boz hardly counts. Hard Times was good, although too short. “The Starlight” is a great chapter. Face it; you don’t know Dickens, and don’t say he’s gaudy or superficial, and then we can go back to arguing happily (and occasionally agreeing) like we always have.

    • Dan,
      I’m very happy to read Dickens and I enjoy his work very much (including Little Dorrit!) but I have to say that he definitely released some of his work as a serial form! I don’t see anything wrong with that! I love to watch TV series where they keep me hanging in suspense for a whole week. At the present time I’m being tortured in suspense waiting for the next episode of Outlander. On the other hand, I’m getting ready to read a book that just arrived on the topic of metamorphasis – some freaky biology. Let’s try to be versatile in our reading, shall we? Poor Phil doesn’t deserve to be browbeaten by us just because he doesn’t like Little Dorrit like we do!

      Of course Pinker can’t include every book that ever inspired someone to speak up for social change. He must have picked the ones he considered to be most important at that time.

      I know this is strange but I remember reading the book Black Beauty when I was a kid. I read it countless times over and over. I still have that book here in my bookcase. I remember loving that horse and I was so upset at the bad treatment that it suffered and still Black Beauty soldiered on through strength of character. Between that book and the fact that I actually had pets myself, it established my ability to feel outrage when confronted with animal abuse in my own domain. I don’t dare to read the book now. I may feel differently about Black Beauty’s calm acceptance of bad treatment. Not sure.

      19th century including early 1900s[edit]
      Serialized fiction surged in popularity during Britain’s Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution.[3] A significant majority of “original” novels from the Victorian era actually first appeared in either monthly or weekly installments in magazines or newspapers.[4] The wild success of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, is widely considered to have established the viability and appeal of the serialized format within periodical literature. During that era, the line between “quality” and “commercial” literature was not distinct.[5] In the German-speaking countries, the serialized novel was widely popularized by the weekly family magazine Die Gartenlaube, which reached a circulation of 382,000 by 1875.[6]

      In France, Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Sue were masters of the serialized genre. The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo each appeared as a feuilleton. The Count of Monte Cristo was stretched out to 139 installments. Eugène Sue’s serial novel Le Juif errant increased circulation of Le Constitutionnel from 3,600 to 25,000. Production in book form soon followed and serialization was one of the main reasons that nineteenth-century novels were so long. Authors and publishers kept the story going if it was successful since authors were paid by line and by episode.

    • Dan

      a true artist and entertainer

      I agree. Most here rate him highly. Me ‘n’ Pinker both rate him as absolutely formative of our modern attitude to childhood. This is utterly conventional wisdom amongst university english departments. It figures in Hugh Cunningham’s book “The invention of Childhood” and Michael Morpurgo’s BBC Radio4 series back in 2006.

      I used to write here quite often about the invention of childhood relating it to a cause and effect of the Industrial Revolution. Dickens by delivering the runaway best seller narratives of childhood at exactly the right moment really added the emotional heft to the reformers of the time (in protection, work, education).

      Art achieves many different things. You may recall I was after some of its other deliverables. “Henry Miller….perfect for me. A really fully rounded human being, noticing the smallest details of his experience.

    • Dan

      and don’t say he’s gaudy or superficial,

      But he is gaudy…thats the “sensation” market he was aiming for. No shame in that. He achieves it well. I never said superficial. The passage you quoted I described as “surface” (it was scene painting) and that I was looking for “introspection”.

      You don’t say where I can find it in Dickens. Your comment suggested it might not be there. My mind and its needs are not your mind and its needs. I don’t begin to understand why you might think art in its specific manifestations must be universal in its reach. Delightfully, we none of us fully share each others aesthetics. The similarities are sweetened by the fact of differences.

    • Welcome to Reza Aslan’s unintended atheist/agnostic Reading Group! I laud The Mod’s for allowing this rhetorical literary detour.

      Thanks for #74 Laurie. Pinker has some interesting insights there, but I agree with Dan in him just scratching the surface. But reading is a one man/woman show. And we are all different in our capacity to read novels, and more importantly to understand them (reading context – Edward Hall did some interesting studies of this and related topics in his book ‘Beyond Culture’, where he introduced the terms ‘high context culture’ and ‘low context culture’).

      I find profundities in Phillip Roth, Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Franzen (to mention just a few). Not so much in some of the classics. For me Melville is like paint drying. Ditto Joyce (and don’t even start with Finnegan’s Wake; count me among many who ‘just didn’t get it’). I liked Heart of Darkness, but only after I’d seen Apocalypse Now. I find that my reading list consists of a hodgepodge of otherwise nonsensical selections in terms of things I found influential. I should do some self analysis to see if there are connecting threads. The first book I remember sticking with me was Flowers for Algernon. What a lovely book.

      I enjoy Dickens. For me profundity has to be linked to the world I know. I didn’t know what the world was like in his time. He certainly paints a lovely picture of that world, but it’s just a picture (for me). The worlds I inhabit by contemporary authors depicting contemporary times resonate to me much more. But I understand this is a personal thing. It’s one of the reasons fantasy (and to a lesser extent, science fiction) has never resonated for me (and trust me, I’ve tried). I’m entertained by them, but not moved by them. And that’s ok.

    • Steven, Laurie, Phil, others

      Aslan! let’s get back to Aslan! Now here’s the question: is Aslan a jelly bean or a chicken salad sandwich?

      Hi, Steven! This is actually a good exercise in tolerance. To each his own; live and let live, and all that…

      But anyone who thinks Dickens isn’t profound or that Melville is… (!!!)

      I got a little taste of what some of these religious people might experience when their tastes and sympathies are challenged or affronted. (LOL)

      Why? Why did I have to bring up Hardy? That’s what started this. No. It was Pinball! w/ Tess! The culprit. It’s all Tess’s fault… the fault lies with Tess. Tess, where are you?

      Steve, one serious point, and I’ll wrap this up: you say that Dickens paints a lovely picture: no, he has painted many pictures, and some very grim pictures – of characters – and of poverty, I might add. His depiction of the maniacal stalker in Our Mutual Friend is positively frightening and real. The list goes on. (And his world is our world, not a different world. Do you eschew Shakespeare and Moliere too because they wrote when they did?) Are you too guilty of passing judgment on an author you have not read enough of? That’s anti-Reason.

      Phil, sorry I raised my voice. (But you appreciate my passion, as you said.) Introspection. You’re right. I can’t tell you where it is or isn’t to be found. I cannot form a clear idea of what you mean. Perhaps at some point you can paste or cite a short passage as a representative example of introspection in the novel.

      You like Miller! Okay, I forgive you.

      Serialized. Laurie, when I read Dickens I am not aware of that and prefer not to think about it. That doesn’t lessen him, and he had no choice anyway. And he was great in spite of that (possible) constraint.

      Black Beauty. I liked what you said (79) about that book and about animals. (I love all animals.) Did you ever read The Giving Tree? Now that’s a powerful allegory. Tragic (although open to interpretation). The Fern Tree, by H.C. Anderson, made be burst into tears. I was about six or seven.

    • Hi, Phil, (80)

      “Me ‘n’ Pinker both rate him as absolutely formative of our modern attitude to childhood. This is utterly conventional wisdom amongst university english departments.”

      Conventional is the right word. I don’t care what those university english departments have to say.

      (When I dropped out of college my education began.)

      Dickens did not pander anymore than Shakespeare did. And Mozart. Like Mozart, there’s nothing like him when he gets serious and writes for himself.

      How’s this? Here’s some “introspection.” Feel free to find fault with it. It’s the end of A Tale of Two Cities. Sydney Carton, sacrificing himself and facing the Guillotine, consoles a young, simple woman, also soon to die.

    • Dan,

      A Tale of Cities, would seem a good place to find what I am looking for, and thank you for thinking of it. But it has none of that Madeleine Dipped in Tea quality. Indeed it has the railroad predictable mindset of a conventionally religious person going to a noble death. (Now you will take offense all over again. There is nothing wrong with this. There is sadness and uplift and emotional heft. but…) But there is no shock of new experience, no OMG, but, of course, that’s how it would feel! I discover/notice nothing new about myself from this situation I have never had to face.

      Now Henry Miller…..

      All the greatest artists had patrons yet retained their original visions and voices. That their art was work-to-eat is part of the astonishing fact of them.

      Henry Miller was rather more your starving artist type.

      Wilde and James remarked on the lack of psychological depth to his characters.

    • Just an example of his power and visionary aspect. I knew the religious stuff would turn you off. I wish I had chosen something else.

      Whose characters lack depth? Dickens’? Wilde’s characters had no depth whatsoever, and he knew it. Great writer though. De Profundis is a masterpiece, as are the fables.

      Henry Miller? Partrons? Starving artist? Could you write more clearly?

      Miller was an extraordinary writer – broke or not; almost superhuman. He could express anything. A wealth, an almost superfluity, of imagery.

      Have you read his trilogy? No. The Colossus of Nexus? No. Big Sur? No. The Air-conditioned Nightmare? No.
      Black Spring? No.

    • P.S. We really should try to find out what Aslan thinks about all this, about Dickens. He’s a professor of literature, is he not? (Bahhhhhhh!) I wasn’t sure what your point was about Miller and may have misconstrued; I interpreted it as yet another (to my mind) unfair criticism. Btw, you just used the word “railroad” as an image. There’s a nice passage about the railway (a recurrent image) in Dombey and Son.

      “He found no pleasure or relief in the journey. . . . The very speed at which the train was whirled along, mocked the swift course of the young life that had been borne away so steadily and so inexorably to its foredoomed end. The power that forced itself upon its iron way — its own — defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.”

    • Unlike Shakespeare or Dickens who were successful business men or Mozart professional patronage-recipient just like most great artists, Miller suffered in garrets for his art. The point is that great art is possible (remarkably so when the artist is great enough) without needing the garret suffering.

      I have somewhere Miller’s trilogy in the Olympia Press edition. (I bought a lot of those OP titles second hand in Paris in my early twenties.) Might be worth a little now….

      The railways became a hugely powerful metaphor through Victorian times peaking in the Edwardian. “Rain steam and speed” 1844. Relentless (fateful), unseeable by its velocity, it turned art on its head.

      Dickens image is truly shuddery.

    • Iv’e never heard of Henry Miller!
      Mind you sounds Ghastly…..

    • @Dan
      Dan, your points are salient and well received. I am a big reader but I’m also a big [fill in the blank]. I am an avid sportsman, I write both for a living and in my leisure time (blogs and such). I am an (over) enthusiastic oenophile. May cup runneth over as they say. I have many diversified interests and reading is but one of them. I have a very limited amount of time to read and I am almost completely unique among my friends as a reader of fiction. Is this an excuse? Of course not, it’s simply the way it is. I mention this because I would love to say that I’ve read the entire Dickens canon; Shakespeare canon; [insert name of influential author] canon. But I haven’t. And I likely won’t. There’s just too much. We are forced to pick and choose, and I choose that which speaks to me.

      Well, let me add to that…

    • Shakespeare seems the odd one out here. I can’t “read” Shakespeare. It’s got to be performed, he was a playwright, not a novelist. I’ve seen some wonderful performances, the language comes alive and the 400 year old turn of phrase stops jarring, and I go with the flow, and it’s brilliant. The Scottish Play, by a Scottish troupe, in a castle in Scotland, where the accents were correct and the words all made sense, and the story unfolded as compelling as if it was brand new. Twelfth Night in a pop-up recreation of The Globe Theatre, the original setting for the performance, complete with ingenious non-verbal body language from the entire cast, and – as it’s a comedy first, and a bit of 400 year old culture only second – audience interactions, I watched my teenage companions laughing themselves to tears, neither having had the chore of studying Shakespeare at school.

      So, skip Shakespeare. I can’t read him any more than I can read Mozart. I’ll leave the reading to the performers, and I’ll look forward to enjoying the performance.

      Novels, all the other writers, on the other hand: probably best read by oneself, silently, in ones own inner reading voice. Anyone else find audiobooks a mixed bag? Some very disappointing renditions out there.

    • Phil, Ohoo, others

      I can and do read plays on an almost weekly basis. Reading Shakespeare is not like reading Mozart (in my opinion). But I think Shakespeare should be heard if one wants to learn to appreciate him.

      I have three audiobooks that I cherish, although I don’t like them as a rule: Anna Karenina by Tolstoy read by Alec Guinness, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky read by Christopher Plummer, and my favorite: Aslan lecturing about Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for six hours (Parts 1, 2, and 3).

      Uh, Phil, Dickens’ created many great characters. Some were very complex. He had tremendous depth. He’s not what you think, perhaps; but then what writer is all things to all people? He was an enormously gifted man, created worlds… and made our world a decidedly better place!

    • Dan #94

      but then what writer is all things to all people?

      My point really. He ain’t Proust, for sure, but then Proust ain’t no Dickens.

      A current novelist that does it for me, that provides introspection and revelations about how various minds work is Ian McEwan. On Chesil Beach was particularly effective. Older and more generally insightful E.M.Forster. My son was doing a dissertation upon Howards End. I gave him a second look and was entranced.