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On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary
On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary
by Richard L. Bushman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.73
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable and provocative, August 2, 2012
As an aspiring historian/author, I found this book very interesting. Ones scholarly work is indeed ones own "brainchild", and baring it for public consumption and perhaps fierce criticism is definitely a disconcerting and strange experience. One of the most interesting parts of this diary is the part in which Bushman gives his rationale for reconciling his profession as a scholarly historian with his religious faith. As a stalwart atheist who found himself unexpectedly absorbed by Rough Stone Rolling, to me this was the most rewarding part of the diary. The one thing I did have a problem with was Bushman's denigration of Fawn Brodie's biography No Man Knows My History, specifically Bushman's hope that his own work would "replace" hers as the definitive biography of Joseph Smith. As Bushman brilliantly explained in the introduction to Rough Stone Rolling, a comprehensive biography of how the movement thinks of the Prophet was definitely needed, and his book clearly supplied that. However, what seems to escape his notice is that the matter of Joseph Smith's prophethood is zero-sum. Unlike in debates of exceptionally complicated phenomena, such as economics, in which there is merit to what both sides say and the truth most likely lies, as ever, in between, here the answer is either simply yes or no. There is no in between. As the vast majority of the world's population reject Smith's prophethood, a biography written from that perspective is mandatory. Bushman's biography absolutely deserves to stand beside hers, but to replace it was not only a naive hope but also an undesirable one.

All said, this was a provocative read, and I'm glad it was published.

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
by Richard L. Bushman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.23
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive, balanced, learned, and beautifully written., July 25, 2012
This book is an absolute pleasure to read. It is an astoundingly comprehensive and engaging narrative of one of the--whatever you may think of his extravagant claims(and I reject them emphatically)--one of the most influential figures in American history. Though himself a believer, Bushman does not gloss over Smith's character flaws. Neither, for that matter, did Smith himself, who, though clearly often capricious and petulant, was after a moment's reflection generally quite candid about his own improprieties. Though the narrative is almost entirely strictly chronological, fierce disputes within the congregation over controversial new doctrines consistently arise, and it is in explicating these that Bushman really shines. Bushman copiously cites rhetoric from both sides of the argument and distills the conflict to the core principles at play, those mostly predominant being republicanism vs. theocracy, secular values vs. unsavory church doctrine, and even classic antebellum discourses on state's rights. Bushman's analyses of how Mormon doctrine at times both deviated and buttressed erstwhile prevailing or fashionable theological currents are astonishingly learned and well written. Aside from a few awe-inspired rhetorical flourishes that pepper the text, skeptical readers needn't worry about hagiography or spin; in fact, upon finishing the book, I found myself more astonished than ever that anyone at all gleans divine inspiration or guidance in the teachings and leadership of Smith. Although he did admittedly often function as a compelling visionary, nearly every terrestrial endeavor of his was a spectacular failure, most memorably virtually everything having to do with the Zion settlement in Missouri and his attempt at starting a Mormon bank in Ohio. The composing of The Book of Mormon alone seems to transcend Smith's abilities and remains wanting for a satisfactory explanation(the hypothesis that Smith alone fabricated and composed it stretches credibility; Smith's prose in his diaries is throughout his life extremely unsophisticated), but modern science and scholarship, as well as common sense, completely preclude the notion of divine revelation. Perhaps a secular one is forthcoming.

Ultimately, whether you're a devout Mormon, a curious investigator, or an indefatigable skeptic, Bushman's work is an an astounding achievement as a biography of both an individual and a nascent religious movement that has since grown into the largest indigenous American religious institution. Highly recommended.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 2, 2012 2:40 PM PDT

The Harbinger: The Ancient Mystery That Holds the Secret of America's Future
The Harbinger: The Ancient Mystery That Holds the Secret of America's Future
by Jonathan Cahn
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.76
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49 of 71 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A literary embarrassment, April 21, 2012
This book is so devoid of anything resembling a story that it's hard to even know what to say about it. The narrative, such as it is, consists of Nouriel recounting his encounters with a "prophet" to Ana, whose profession is never really made clear. It's implied she is some sort of executive of a news organization. Literally entire pages are comprised entirely of a back-and-forth exchange of dialogue between Nouriel and the "prophet", at the conclusion of which Nouriel goes home, ruminates on what he was told, and then goes off searching for the next clue, where he invariably ends up encountering the "prophet" again who reveals more of the elusive "prophecy" which unlocks the "mystery" of 9/11 and the economic crisis. It's fairly obvious that the author wrote the story in such an incredibly tedious and vague manner because the substantive content of the "prophecy" purportedly revealed in the book would probably amount to less than five pages, or perhaps five sentences. So allow me to save you fifteen dollars and a few hours: The author, Johnathan Cahn, sees some vague parallels between what befell the northern kingdom of Israel as accounted in the book of Isiah and contemporary world events. Unfortunately his appraisal of history is marred by serious errors, such as the old ridiculous canard that American was founded as a Christian nation. His evaluation of the Assyrians as the "Fathers of Terrorism" is laugh-inducing, seeing as Joshua and the Hebrews conquered the tribes of Canaan with similar ferocity and bloodlust. Also problematic is the fact the southern kingdom of Judah made a concerted effort to rededicate themselves to Yahweh and still ended up getting conquered by the Babylonians. To be fair, Cahn addresses this in the book, but his rejoinder to this quandary is laughable(Basically, the Judahites didn't try hard enough). The sum of Cahn's theory is that if America doesn't reverse its current moral decadence--which he describes as "sensuality, greed, money, success, comfort, materialism, pleasure, sexual immorality, self-worship, self-obsession, and the banning of the Word of God from public schools"--, some vague catastrophe will soon befall it. (I note here that the putative revival of the United States that would take place were we to collectively repent would entail the United States again enjoying "money", "success",and "comfort", among other things!)

The back of this book boasts that this book "will change that way you see the world forever". On that promise, it delivered. The fact that this is a runaway bestseller and being effusively praised by millions of readers is enough to make one weep for the future of humanity.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 26, 2012 7:17 AM PDT

Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America
Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $11.99

3 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bizzare, March 6, 2012
A Tea Partier told me(a progressive liberal) that this book was awesome and loaned me his personal copy. Generally I enjoy reading the sophistry of the ultra-right-wing conservative blowhards simply for a laugh, but instead of being full of the laughable Tea Party boilerplate, this book left me befuddled. Essentially it's just a litany of quotes from Enlightenment-era philosophers building the case for classical liberalism. How any of this is relevant to the predicament the country currently finds itself in is left pretty much entirely the reader's own imagination aside from some extremely, extremely cursory commentary in the opening and closing pages(roughly half a dozen small pages). In all honesty, the Occupy movement could slap a different title, introduction, and conclusion on the meat of this book and thereby make a pretty good case for the tyranny of corporate oligarchy.

This begs the question of why Tea Partiers are so enthusiastic about this book and why they think it promotes their cause. While I generally like to refrain from insults, it seems a pretty solid general rule that Tea Partiers are quite unintelligent and not particularly well-read. Seeing Levin's Tea Party rhetoric grafted onto some impressive sounding academic names (Locke! Tocqueville!) lends an air of intellectual credibility to their argument. Unfortunately they fail to see that much of the actual arguments undermine their devotion to a Christian government and so forth. It is certainly true that these writers also embraced libertarian ideals, but again conservatives fail to see that these are IDEALS. In my estimation, it is the role of the government to protect the American Ideal; without it such practices as nepotism, cronyism, consumer and worker exploitation etc. result in the creation of an oligarchy.

For the sheer vacuity of Levin's own connecting the dots between these philosophers and what we face in the year 2012, as well as the idiocy of conservatives who think this is some sort of groundbreaking work, I am tempted to give 1 star. However, there's a weird train-wreck quality to this book that you don't find in the other anti-Obama boilerplate tomes, so I'll give it 3 stars.
Comment Comments (38) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 14, 2012 7:01 AM PDT

Free Will
Free Will
by Sam Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.05
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11 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Provocative but unconvincing; very little new material, March 6, 2012
This review is from: Free Will (Paperback)
Sam Harris exploded onto the scene with the stunningly lucid and urgent "The End of Faith", which has become a modern classic and remains the very best of the stupidly-titled "New Atheist" genre. While Sam's assorted essays and public appearances in the following years remained(and remain) a delight to read, my own personal enthusiasm for him plummeted after the shockingly bad exhibition of pedestrian and often times just plain nonsensical philosophy exhibited in The Moral Landscape, in which Harris apparently felt that dangling the talisman of neuroscience magically solved the quandaries that have plagued the pursuit of "objective" ethics for centuries. The professional reviews were pulverizing and Harris' response to them thus far has been very inadequate. Would Free Will continue the foray into oblivion or signal the return of the author who composed the brilliant The End of Faith?

To someone who hasn't given much thought to this issue previously, there is much provocative material to be had here. Especially relieving is that Sam's neuroscientific findings/observations are indeed very relevant and illuminating within this particular debate, unlike in TML. Indeed, upon finishing the opening chapters, it's very hard to conceive of a cogent argument for the existence of Free Will in light of the philosophical and,now, thanks to neuroscience, empirical arguments against the concept. What's rather disappointing, however, is that Harris' acknowledges that his friend Daniel Dennett is a proponent of compatibalism, but is then very, very cursory in his treatment and dismissal of that school of thought; if you don't know anything about compatibalism before you read this book, you won't know much more about it after you finish this book. Yes, I am aware of how similar this sounds to the ridiculous canard that New Atheists don't even engage with "authentic" or "sophisticated" theology, however I don't think that's an exact parallel. Certainly atheists are right to point out that filling in gaps in our understanding of the universe with theology is untenable, however "sophisticated" it is. But here Harris seems to be arguing that the "gap" in our human understanding of consciousness forever unbridgeable. He shrewdly points out that it's hard to even conceive in principle of what "free will" might entail, but even conceding that, it's not entirely convincing. What's also noteworthy is that Dennett himself is a very able philosopher who often delights in excoriating vacuous philosophical arguments. If even Dennett subscribes to compatibalism, surely it is on more substantive grounds than Harris presents in this book.

The main problem I have with this work is the treatment of reconciling the lack of free will with an internally coherent way of punishing criminals. Harris' argument is flawed on many levels. First, his argument that stewards of people's neurological states could be held accountable for not "treating" the would-be criminal does not solve the fundamental problem, it merely shifts the moral culpability to another agent, who in turn ALSO HAS NO FREE WILL. i.e, in Harris' argument, a doctor who withheld a cure for "evil"--a rather facile scenario--has committed a moral failing, so who is to be held responsible for that? This merely creates an infinite regress. Even if we were to concede that such a form of punitive justice would be internally coherent, which it isn't, actually applying would raise some very real fascist implications. Eliding this was a huge problem with The Moral Landscape and unfortunately rears its head again here.

(There is a very interesting episode of the television program "House" that deals with the question of culpability. In it, a convicted triple murderer on death row is found to have a "pheo"; a tumor that randomly releases shots of adrenaline which can cause fits of rage. After discovering this, Dr. Foreman decides to testify at a hearing in favor reducing or ending the patient's prison sentence. House agrees that Dr. Foreman can do this on his own time and that the argument has some merit, but also urges him to keep in mind "all those other pheo sufferers
who managed to control their rage attacks and become lawyers, race car drivers, and even doctors." This episode is the Season 2 premiere entitled "Acceptance")

Harris' dismissal of the illusion of free will being essential for happiness is far too cursory, as it is constituted entirely merely of Sam's personal feelings about not having free will. Certainly there are others who share his viewpoint, but I personally become very depressed when I let myself get on a long train of reductionist thought. Certainly others feel this way, too; this subject deserved more than simply Harris' own personal anecdote.

Finally, while this work hasn't been published before in the traditional sense, for an avid reader of Harris' blog and assorted essays very little of the material is entirely new, but merely a stitching of earlier, shorter, materials.

Overall, this is a mildly provocative book that certainly does a good job of deconstructing many of the illogical dogmas surrounding the idea of free will, but won't entirely convince a skeptical reader who is already aware of the traditional arguments about free will or the lack thereof.

2.5 stars.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 12, 2012 2:25 PM PDT

The New Quislings: How the International Left Used the Oslo Massacre to Silence Debate About Islam
The New Quislings: How the International Left Used the Oslo Massacre to Silence Debate About Islam
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $2.99

23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important, urgent book., February 11, 2012
On July 21st, 2011, Bruce Bawer was already outcast by many on the Left as a self-evident bigot, more specifically a first-rate "Islamophobe", naturally owing to his persistent sharp criticism of Islam, in particular the expanding role it is playing in Europe. On July 22nd, however, Bawer was transformed from mere outcast into a bona-fide villain and, for many, an actual accomplice to the horrific massacre perpetrated by Anders Breivik. Bawer's crime? Being cited in Breivik's "manifesto" explicating his rationale behind his forthcoming massacre, which ostensibly cited Bawer(and other professional "Islamophobes") roughly two dozen times as inspiration for his monstrous act. Naturally, being branded as an accomplice or at least inspiration to one of the worst criminals of the young century is a very serious charge. More importantly, it is a completely unfounded, nonsensical, and simply outrageous charge, as Bawer clearly argues in this extended essay.

As a preface, it must be stated that--it's embarrassing that one would even need to point this out--Bawer(as well as other "Islam in Europe" authors such as Bat Ye'or, Christopher Caldwell, and Melanie Phillips) has never advocated or even vaguely implied that violence is the solution to curtailing the rise of Islamism in Europe. On the contrary, these authors are often careful to point out that by far the greatest victims of Islamic theology are MUSLIMS THEMSELVES.

So even though he was cited in Breivik's manifesto(along with, Bawer shrewdly points out, other notorious villains of history such as Thomas Jefferson, George Orwell, and Charles Darwin), where exactly, in the eyes of the Left, does Bawer's culpability lie? Their inane and intellectually lazy argument is best crystallized in an absolutely outrageous piece posted by popular blogger Andrew Sullivan shortly after the massacre.

"When an entire population in your midst is the enemy within and your government is acquiescing to it and your entire civilization is thereby doomed, what does Bruce think a blue-eyed patriot like Breivik should do? Is the leap to violence so obviously insane? Or is it actually the only logical conclusion to the tyranny Breivik believed he faced?"

Personally, I was absolutely disgusted by this piece when I read it on Sullivan's blog the very day he posted it, and sent him a letter in which I said so as well as deconstructed the elementary logical fallacies on display in his argument. Unsurprisingly, it seems Bawer himself felt the same way, and for those not wanting to be intellectually imaginative enough to have their comfortable "tolerant" views of Islam in any way disturbed, Bawer does them the favor here.

Principle among the fallacies of Sullivan's argument is that Breivik's crime was rational, which is manifestly untrue. A prospective moment's sober reflection on Breivik's plan by an even reasonably sound mind would invariably yield the conclusion that his massacre is going to have the exact OPPOSITE effect he desired. i.e Breivik wanted to stop the emergence of an "Islamic Europe", so he planned to massacre children being indoctrinated in the liberal orthodoxy that Islam is completely benign. The plainly obvious outcome is that once he murders these children and his manifesto is read it will only further discredit the "Islamophobia" movement and only further reinforce the liberal dogma that "Islamophobia is dangerous". This is a logical deduction a reasonably bright adolescent could make. That it evaded someone who had the intellectual capability to compose a 1500 page manifesto on the history of ideological movements in Europe is evidence of the manifest insanity of his act.

Note I said a PROSPECTIVE reflection on Breivik's plan would yield this conclusion. Apparently such a sober and elementary analysis of Breivik's plan completely eluded Sullivan, whose piece more or less echoes what is now orthodoxy among the liberal establishment. The irony, of course, is rich; Following Breivik's act, as well as the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner, the reflexive liberal response was that those with whom the perpetrator identified(or in the case of Loughner, before even that was known) needed to take a step back and temper their rhetoric because it ostensibly inspired an act of violence. Yet, when an act of violence as perpetrated by Nidal Hissan at Fort Hood is committed explicitly by the perpetrator in the name of Allah, any reflection on the Qu'ran, Hadith, and other Islamic literature is completely verboten, and we are instead left to grasp at the other nebulous "root causes" of the act. This is rendered even more perverse and troublesome by the fact that acts like Hissan's, as opposed to those of Breivik and Loughner, are actually completely RATIONAL within an Islamic framework, specifically the Qu'ran's incessant injunction to fight the infidels.

In other words, the standard liberal protocol to acts of terror is as follows

1)If the perpetrator is non-Muslim, those whose works/rhetoric the terrorist has ever been exposed to(Breivik), or even had never been exposed to(as was the case with Loughner, who never even saw Palin's now infamous "target" image) but, with some serious mental gymnastics, could be used to justify acts of violence, bear culpability.
2)If the perpetrator is Muslim, and explicitly tells us why he committed said act(i.e the Islamic literature enjoins it), the Islamic literature is actually completely unrelated to the terrorist act.

As Bawer himself said in response to the reviews excoriating his book Surrender, "We are, make no mistake, deep into Orwellian territory here".

I would like to state for the record that I do have one minor quibble with the book and that is the treatment of Guantonomo and Abu Gharib. While I have absolutely no problem with torture in such extreme scenarios as the classic "ticking bomb" scenario or in other assorted scenarios where we can be sure beyond a reasonable doubt that the person tortured possesses extremely highl-valued information, it's pretty well-documented that the torture at the aforementioned institutions often veered beyond this into an almost recreational exercise. While I emphatically agree with Bruce that this does not even come close to indicating a general moral equivalence between the United States and Al Qaeda, his dismissal is just a tad too glib for my taste, and will probably provide ammunition for his many critics to deploy against him.

In response to the reviewer who complained that Bawer sounded too "mad", I note that there are few things more serious than being charged as an accomplice-directly or indirectly--to an absolutely horrific murder of dozens of children. Yes, Bawer's tone, especially in response to Sullivan, is acidic, but given the moral gravity of what's being said of him, it seems entirely justified to me.

I should add that although I have focused here on the media's inane and unconscionable construing of "Islamophobic" literature being meaningfully related to Breivik's crime and Bawer's response to it, his book is actually far more ambitious. Namely, he provides a brief history of the ideological climate of Norway post-World War II(which is where the title is derived from) and how the response to Breivik's crime fits into that paradigm.

My own response to Sullivan-sent the day he posted his inane piece-reads as follows.

Dear Andrew,

you wrote:

"If you buy those very arguments, as expressed by Berwick (and Geller and Spencer), what option do you really have but the fascist solutions he recommends and the neo-fascist violence he unleashed? When an entire population in your midst is the enemy within and your government is acquiescing to it and your entire civilization is thereby doomed, what does Bruce think a blue-eyed patriot like Berwick should do? Is the leap to violence so obviously insane? Or is it actually the only logical conclusion to the tyranny Berwick believed he faced?"

Why don't you ask the thousands of us fierce critics of Islam who would never dream of committing such a heinous act and are condemning this violence in the strongest possible terms? Oh, here's the point where you say "Don't you catch the irony there? You hold all Muslims responsible for every Islamic terrorist attack!" Here's the key distinction: Within Breivik's ideological framework, it is extremely easy to demonstrate that committing such a destructive act is completely hypocritical and counter-productive. Had I had a chance to speak with this murderous psychopath before he embarked upon his mission, I would have admonished him that a huge percentage of his victims had absolutely nothing to do with the sort of multi-cultural dogma he detested and that the biggest political fallout from his actions would be that his own terrorist attack will simply provide rhetorical ammunition for apologists for Islam in the future("Christians do it, too!") What possible rational counter-argument could he have provided?

Now let us consider an Islamic terrorist-to-be. By what argument do we engage him? Rational arguments are of no use whatsoever; our terrorist is in possession of a Higher, Divine Truth. Should we ask him how he can justify such a murderous act, he can happily point us to snippets of the Qu'ran within which his attack will be entirely rational. What recourse do we have then? None. The only ones who can demonstrate to him that he is mistaken within the context of the Qu'ran are Muslims themselves. That is why moderate Muslims share responsibility for Islamic terrorist attacks. It simply does not suffice to declare by fiat that any Islamic terrorist "Wasn't a real Muslim." If violent schools of Islamic thought are such "perversions" of "true" Islamic doctrine, why aren't moderate Muslims dedicating their energies to demonstrating to these Muslims just *why* and *how* they have perverted the "true" nature of Islam instead of calling us Westerners "Islamophobic" for being disconcerted by this nonsensical violence?

My argument is not, and never will be, that terrorism is the only logical outcome of Islamic faith. Insofar as I am not Muslim(nor of any other religious creed), I believe all schools of Islamic thought to be complete nonsense. It is indisputable, however, that terrorism is a logical outcome of Islamic faith that is incredibly easy to rationally justify within the framework of the Qu'ran. The same cannot be said of Breivik's ideology. That is why there is no collective responsibility shared among Islam's critics. To not acknowledge this is pure intellectual dishonesty."
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 30, 2012 11:49 AM PDT

Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back
Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back
by Lynn Vincent
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.99
1473 used & new from $0.01

9 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Sidesplitting, September 24, 2011
I'm certainly not so presumptuous as to style myself as any kind of authority when it comes to comedic literature, but it's hard to imagine that a book funnier than this has been published in the past year, decade, or even century. I would, however, be remiss not to state that the emotional uplift you will get from the laughter doesn't come with a price. Before you can see the humor of this, you will have to come to grips with the deep depression you experience after you realize one, some, or all of the following things: An innocent child has been brainwashed by his parents to believe an idiotic fairy tale that will likely hold him intellectually hostage for the rest of his life, that you live in a country where a book like this is not only categorized as non-fiction, but is a smash-hit bestseller, and that whoever is responsible for this atrocity has probably reaped more financial windfall from it than you earn in ten years, or perhaps a lifetime.

That said, I still think you should bear down and make the effort to read it. Where else can you find such sidesplitting gems as angels fighting Satan's army of fearsome dragons, or parents squabbling over who gets to die first so that they can name their aborted daughter in heaven? Nowhere, I'm afraid.
Comment Comments (13) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 12, 2011 12:46 PM PDT

The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures
The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures
by Nicholas Wade
Edition: Hardcover
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4 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very disappointing., September 15, 2011
I had high hopes for this book, but it turned out to be a meandering, unfocused, and somewhat intellectually dishonest entry to the tired "faith-science reconciliation" genre. The author warmly assures the potentially religious leader that they have nothing to fear from a "natural" explanation for religious behavior, since we would expect that God would want his creatures to develop a way to communicate with him. That may be true, but at the very least the fact that we can now explain phenomenon previously thought to be supernatural in origin in perfectly reasonable, scientific terms certainly has to raise more than a few questions for a believer. At the very least it demands rejecting Biblical literalism. This issue goes entirely unaddressed.

Although the book promises to explore the genetic and evolutionary history of religious behavior, it really only spends two chapters on this subject, and both are extremely weak. The author's entire hypothesis is based on group selection. Oddly, he admits that the present-day consensus among biologists is that group selection plays a marginal role at best in evolutionary theory, but then goes right on to base his entire hypothesis on it. This is suspect, to say the least. I also dislike the emphasis placed on "song and dance" as a religious phenomenon; they are certainly part of many religious traditions, but they are certainly not a defining feature of what makes a culture "religious". Although he spent only a few sentences discussing it, the few quotes given in favor of the "non-adaptive" theory of religion came off as far more probable and convincing than the author's own group selection theory. While I greatly dislike Daniel Dennet, his book "Breaking The Spell" is a far, far better treatment of the evolutionary origins of religious behavior.

The strongest chapter in the book is "The Tree of Religion", where the author offers short histories of each of the three great monotheisms. Here the author is not coy about presenting purely historical narratives about the origins of these faiths that establish much of their traditional doctrines as fiction(The Exodus, the early Jesus Movement, the divine dictation of the Qu'ran), seemingly oblivious that he earlier assured religious readers they had nothing to fear from the evidence. While I enjoyed this chapter, it has little to do with what the book promised, which was an exploration of the biological origins of religion, not a simple history of religious movements.

This book spends very little time on what it promises, and where it does, the treatment is cursory and highly suspect. Look elsehwere.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 23, 2013 11:54 AM PST

The End of Christianity
The End of Christianity
by John W. Loftus
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.74
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14 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Devastating, September 14, 2011
This is easily the best book of its type I've ever read. In fact, although I own roughly a dozen works of atheist literature, this is only the second that I feel compelled to share with my Christian friends. The first was Dan Barker's Godless, which was compelling chiefly as an incredibly humane, warm, and lucid memoir about leaving Christianity but had only modest "debunking Christianity" ambitions. Loftus, on the other hand, shares no such modesty. In fact, this book is the third in a series from him advocating atheism. I certainly enjoyed his previous two works, but ultimately only in a mostly academic sense; that is, they were interesting, engaging, and informative to this evangelical-turned-atheist reader, but rarely did I come across a passage that I felt would shake the faith of a committed Christian. As Loftus himself often points out, evangelical Christianity entails several absurdly irrational beliefs that Christians have wholeheartedly embraced. Given that, it is unlikely that fairly esoteric errors such as discrepancies with date and location of Jesus' birth are likely to be of particular concern for believers. Pointing out these types of errors was generally the main thrust of the last collection of essays published by Loftus. This is emphatically not the case with this collection. In fact, amused as I was by Loftus' boast on the first page that he feels this book "closes the case" on Christianity, I now fully endorse it. It is difficult to see how Christian apologists, as inventive a bunch as they are, can possibly refute the general rhetorical and argumentative thrust of four essays in particular.

1. "Can God Exist if Yahweh doesn't?"/ 2. "God's Emotions"
"Can God Exist If Yahweh doesn't?" is my personal favorite essay from the collection, and the following essay "God's Emotions" is a complement to it. As often noted by atheists, Christians(as well as as everybody else) have absolutely no qualms with summarily dismissing the existence of literally thousands of Gods espoused by various cultures at various points throughout history, the example most often proffered being Zeus, along with others such as Apollo, Baal etc. Unlike these gods, however, name of the Judeo-Christian god is most often rendered simply as a capitalized form of the generic word "god". Equivocation therefore arises in debates between Christians and atheists over the existence of "God". Most atheists, while emphatically denying the existence of the Judeo-Christian "God", are candid that the possibility, however improbable, that the universe is the the result of some vague, transcendent entity called "God" can never be definitively ruled out; even Richard Dawkins concedes that he is not a full "seven" on his own atheist scale, but rather a six point nine. Because of the equivocation of the term "god" as deployed by both the Christian and atheist, an observer might therefore reasonably conclude that even atheists concede that the existence of "God" isn't as clearly irrational notion as the existence of "Zeus". This is unfortunate but in fact easily rectified. By simply rendering the Judeo-Christian "God" by his common name in the Hebrew text "Yahweh", his existence suddenly becomes every bit as irrational as the existence of the Gods of the ancient Greeks. If we take the the Hebrew scriptures seriously, as they enjoin us to do, we find out that

"Yahweh" has:
a human face, backside, hands and feet.

"Yahweh" thinks that:
the universe was created in six literal days, by himself, no less.
there is an ocean above the stars from which rainwater falls.

"Yahweh" demands that his chosen people, the Israelites:
worship him
kill certain of his creations to nourish him and remove guilt
not create garments made from two different kinds of materials

"Yahweh" has profound affinities for:
horse-drawn chariots
swords as the ideal weapon in combat
intelligence services that spy on subjects to ascertain their loyalty

This is, of course, merely a fraction of the specific hilariously absurd qualities ascribed to "Yahweh" in the Hebrew Bible, which make him as easy to dismiss out of hand as Zeus. The author astutely points out that even Christians, in their assertion that the Old Testament laws are "outdated", are tacitly conceding the irrelevance of Yahweh. Derivative of that(and usually left unexplored by Christians) is that central to Christian doctrine is that Jesus *is* Yahweh. Needles to say, this leaves Christians in quite a bind. The rest of the essay, as well as the one that follow it, "God's Emotions", go on to explain why the qualities ascribed to Yahweh are clearly projections of human concepts. For example, God speaks in Hebrew to no one in particular "Let there be light," but the existence of dental consonants is contingent upon the existence of teeth, which are for eating, which raises obvious theological conundrums. Likewise, Yahweh as depicted in the Bible is a firebrand of emotion, but emotions are merely tools conducive to survival of biological agents. Why would all-powerful Yahweh have them? Each of these piercing questions about Yahweh demands an answer. Even on a question-by-question basis, the notion that there exists some incredibly nuanced, perhaps "unknowable" theological answer requires quite a stretch of imagination; when all are stacked upon one another, the idea that Yahweh *actually exists* as opposed to being merely a human literary creation is risible.

So, yes, there certainly *might* exist a "God" who created the universe. When atheists concede as much, are they conceding that the petty, vindictive, and outright bizarre "Yahweh" is this God? Only insofar as they are conceding, along with Christians, that Zeus might be this God. Which is merely another way of saying not at all.

3. "Christianity Is Wildly Improbable"
The absurdities of Christian doctrine don't end with Yahweh, of course. Modern evangelical Christianity entails the central doctrines of the trinity, resurrection, and other bizarre narrative details(Satan's rebellion). Loftus quite rightly points out that when a Christian becomes a Christian, he generally does so based upon the emotional appeal of the Gospel message. After that self-confirming experience(which is, indeed, very powerful, as I, Loftus, and other former Christians know), the other central doctrines to Christianity are added piecemeal along the way. The acceptance of each individual notion might not be such a leap of faith, but when stacked upon one another, they form of a narrative of breathtaking irrationality and absurdity. As part of his Outsider Test of Faith, Loftus asks believers to take a step back and think about what they actually believe, which he lists in cold, clear language and then enjoins them to consider whether this is any more irrational than belief systems they emphatically reject, such as Islam. The unavoidable answer is that it is in fact, far moreso. Especially in light of what was learned about "Yahweh" aka "God" aka "Jesus" in the previous essays, it is difficult to imagine an adequate rejoinder from a Christian.

4. "Christianity's Success Was Not Incredible"
Although the patent absurdity of Christian doctrine is now established, it is certainly beyond dispute to even the most ardent atheist that Christianity has been an incredibly influential, perhaps the most influential, ideology in modern human history. An oft-heard argument from Christian apologists is that this success somehow attests to the validity of Christianity's central truth claims. The prevalence of Islam alone, whose doctrines Christians explicitly reject as false(as they, indeed, must) would seem to nullify conclusively any supernatural interpretation of the data, but for good measure, the author of this essay provides a set of conditions we would expect to find if Christianity were true, and a set of conditions we would expect to find if Christianity were false. Without exception, the realities of Christian doctrine correspond perfectly to those we would expect to find if Christianity were false.

Case closed. Mission accomplished, Mr. Loftus.

There are ten other essays in this book, mostly of academic interest to those who have already rejected Christianity. Which is certainly not to say they are of no interest at all. David Eller's "Is Religion Compatible With Science" is the best treatment of an oft-written-about subject I have yet read, contributions from Victor Stenger and Richard Carrier on the afterlife and cosmology, respectively, are a joy to read and Hector Avalos provides an interesting piece on the state of Biblical disciplines in academia. While these won't be of much practical use in debates with evangelical Christians, they are certainly informative in their own respective disciplines.

While absentmindedly scanning radio stations yesterday, I found myself listening to a program entitled "Pastor's Perspective", in which a pastor provided Biblical and theological answers to inquiries submitted by callers. These are grown, and often very intelligent, adults who believe, as I too once did, with every fiber of their being that Satan and the archangel Michael fought over custody of Moses' body after he died on Mount Nebo, and that every problem on Earth today(hunger, poverty, terrorism) is merely ancillary to the central conflict of the human experience, and indeed, the entire Universe; namely, that homo sapiens commit their life to a fictional character that belongs on the literary shelf alongside the Tin Woodsman of Oz. These people are so blissfully entangled in the thicket of religious irrationality that it is difficult to imagine them ever getting out. Several years ago, I somehow extricated myself from this dangerous web of irrationality. More than any other book of its type, I believe that this book can ensure that many more will too.
Comment Comments (10) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 7, 2011 8:38 AM PST

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN
Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN
by James A. Miller
Edition: Hardcover
201 used & new from $0.01

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, June 22, 2011
This book was absolutely fascinating, not just in terms of how much behind-the-scenes tidbits you'll get from literally dozens of ESPN personalities, but even more so as an account of how a seemingly hopeless business endeavor calling a dilapidated warehouse in the middle of nowhere its headquarters grows into, over the course of three decades, a worldwide business empire. In this dreadful economic downturn it's become commonplace for people to complain about how much money big-shot executives make, but this book really illuminates what goes on behind the scenes in these mega-conglomerates and how much responsibility these guys really have. Some reviewers have complained about the book actually being mostly composed of just interview snippets, but I think this was a brilliant approach; it breathes far more life into the narrative than simple prose could have. The paragraphs tying the interviews together did a great job providing context, and the "Steps to World Domination" motif added a bit of a backbone to the overall story. One thing that is great about this book is that it is by no means a hagiography; there's plenty of mudslinging between the key players. Yes, successes are documented in a lot more detail than failures, but that's more owing to the fact that virtually every big venture ESPN has undertaken has been successful. What I found most interesting about the book is that while I recall ESPN being pretty much omnipresent for my entire childhood, their status as an untouchable empire was really not solidified until around 2001 when they began rolling out talk-show programs (spearheaded by PTI) that really filled out the daytime lineup.

I'd recommend this book both to fans of ESPN and anybody who wants to get a behind-the-scenes look of a true business empire.

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