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28 of 50 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Trite, March 13, 2011
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This review is from: Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist (Kindle Edition)
Unfortunately, anger is the predominant emotion both in academia and in debates about religion. The author of this book makes a very believable assertion that this anger arises because we all need a large degree of "self-esteem" when dealing with the problems and issues of everyday life, and how to interact with others. Sometimes this anger can be short-lived, as when one's taste in food or clothing is criticized. The anger lifetime can be very long however when one's worldview is called into question. The author is clearly angry, as are some of the atheists he criticizes. The title of this book is a dead giveaway to this anger, and a study of the contents will reveal even more. However it does not matter what the reason that author had for writing the book, and just because he is angry does not imply his assertions are invalid. The only thing that counts is evidence, and unfortunately there is a paucity of such in this book.

As an example, the author only gives anecdotal evidence that atheists "desperately" seek a "faith" in the form of a "comforting fiction" to make their lives more meaningful. He gives a few quotes from the more "famous" atheists like Jean Paul Sartre and Sigmund Freud, but he does not show how this small collection of individuals could represent the views of the entire collection of atheists. And are all humans "relentlessly" seeking transcendence and spirituality, and what exactly is the meaning behind these terms? How does one show that everyone does this? By viewing their behavior? By asking them questions and analyzing their responses? Do we use a scientific methodology or just make a general, rash claim that this is the case as the author does? Do all atheists refuse to examine the possibility of a non-material soul? Some do, but there are also some who need constructive evidence of such an entity, not just "evidence" based on sophisticated rhetoric or scripture. And do all atheists really think language is a "miracle"? Even though the exact mechanisms of language acquisition are still being hotly debated, in these debates one does not usually find the word "miracle" thrown about when discussing these mechanisms.

Further, just because the "Nobel Prize winning" biologist George Wald said that consciousness is "wholly impervious to science" does not mean that it is. The study of consciousness in the field of cognitive neuroscience is in its infancy, but the results obtained are so far very interesting and deserve further scrutiny. So it is incorrect to state that science "does not have the slightest idea" how material beings could be conscious. Along these same lines, in the past a favorite question to ask scientists by those hostile to the scientific method was "how can you prove you love your spouse"? A response was typically not forthcoming. But now, because of advances in cognitive neuroscience, we understand what is happening in the brain when a person is in love, and so the question can now be answered with a large degree of confidence. And just because the atheist Joel Marks believes that "there are no grounds for being good" does not mean that all atheists believe that way, nor does it mean that there is no sound scientific basis for morality. The field of neuroethics is one of the approaches currently taken, and in many ways is "reasonable". And just because the biological sciences have not given a coherent account of how living systems have evolved from nonliving things does not mean that such an account will never be found, and such a gap in understanding does not give weight to the intelligent design hypothesis.

The author gives no constructive evidence for the theory of intelligent design, i.e. an explicit characterization of the design process and just how a spiritual being could manipulate matter and energy. He repeats the design implies designer argument throughout the book, and a shaky reliance on "functional complexity", the latter of which can take on different meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. In software engineering for example, it is used to measure and characterize the complexity of programs. The author never really gives an explicit account of what functional complexity is and how it "refutes" the arguments of atheists.

And just what is a "prominent" atheist? The author makes such a designation in the book, and readers apparently are supposed to share his belief the Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc are spokespersons for atheism just because they are popular in the news media. Prizes, degrees, honors, and media attention are completely independent of the truth of someone's utterances. It is only evidence that matters, and the truth is something that is very hard to obtain, requiring large blocks of time and a lot of cognitive sweat.

But given all the rhetoric of this book and even those of "prominent" atheists, it is still a reasonable question to ask as to why us unbelievers don't throw in with the believers in accepting a personal God actively involved in human affairs. What have we got to lose compared with the promise of eternal life? Well, eternal life may on the surface seem like the ultimate gift, but on further examination it proves to be a very disconcerting prospect. When a person knows he/she is going to live forever, goals become meaningless. After all, one could wait trillions and trillions of years to work towards even the most trivial of goals or complete rudimentary tasks. What a completely meaningless life this would be, with no challenges because there are no time constraints. Failure becomes almost impossible since so much time is available for success. And success is not relished because there are no personal consequences for failure. Eternal life thus seems like an incredible burden; certainly something to be avoided at all costs if one is to live meaningfully and productively. A life facing obstacles, with a knowledge that one is only alive for a finite amount of time is a prerequisite for a meaningful life. And "paradise" is relative to the observer. A finite life in the twenty-first century, with the explosion of technology and scientific discoveries, is at least for this (atheist) reviewer infinitely preferable to eternal life in some place unknown. This is the most exciting time ever to be alive, and to paraphrase a line from a Hollywood science fiction movie, it is ample proof that the human adventure is just beginning.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 18, 2011 6:31:09 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 18, 2011 6:34:13 PM PDT
I must say, as a person who gave this book a very positive review, that I found your negative review far more thoughtful, and thought provoking, than the other such review offered. So please take my comments as just that: comments.

Although you did not state it explicitly, you alluded to Pascal's wager: the famous proposition that we should "believe" in God because, from a standpoint of probability our doing so is ultimately more beneficial. I thought your response on this point was interesting and convincing, at least insofar as Pascal's wager is often expressed. One may question if eternal life is really worth it. Pascal himself, however, expressed in terms of eternal life v. eternal damnation. In other words, the options are not life v. non existence, but a life of joy v. a life of suffering. I don't think he considered "non-existence" (which many atheists accept) as a viable option. He may have been wrong on this point. Still, I thought your last paragraph very interesting.

As an aside, however, I have not met any believers (of any faith) who came to their position as a result of Pascal's wager. And this book did not reference it once. I think the experience of a divine "other" seems rather independent of a belief in an afterlife (all the more so in the case of orthodox Jews like the author). On the other hand, many atheists and agnostics I have met seem to think that those who believe in one or more faiths often do so in hope of an eternal life. I'm just not sure that is a fair reading of the situation. When Augustine wrote The City of God, he was not trying to simply say "we will all be happy someday." Rather, he was trying to convey, often in poetic and metaphoric language (which is the language of all spiritual traditions) how the eternal differs from the material world. It was both an explanation and analysis of the fall of Rome, but not simply a call to enjoy the fruits of eternal life.

What I am trying to suggest then is not that you are wrong. (Although the final paragraph really does not address the arguments of this book which make little reference to Pascal.) Rather, I am arguing that a literal reading of texts is a poor way to approach spirituality. It is, however, how most atheists that I have read (which I will not confuse with "all" atheists) interpret these texts and how a minority of Christian believers (fundamentalists) read them as well. Pascal was trying to apply a method to Christianity (probability theory, which he had personally offered considerable advances in) which was entirely unsuitable to understanding it. But in doing so, he offered critics of religion, like yourself, a language that was comfortable for understanding religious thought. This is why Pascal's wager is used by so many atheists and so few believers. And why we often talk past one another.

In any event, thank you for writing a thoughtful review on an interesting topic. It is refreshing to read someone who is not just attacking a book because they disagree with it. And I in particular agree fully with your final line, that "the human adventure is just beginning."

Posted on May 8, 2011 4:05:46 PM PDT
I was surprised to hear that you find the prospect of eternal life disconcerting. I believe that the "universe is unbounded in its glory" in the sense that the frontier of knowledge will continue to expand and this will provide us with an unending supply of tools to continue improving our lot. From your reviews I think you must also share this opinion/belief. So to not want to be around to participate in the coming glories surprises me. Of course those glories will only come about through our conscious struggle, so the challeange will be there -it won't be boring, unless you give up at some point. If molecular biology gave us a way to achieve immortality, or if we somehow could make that 'star-child' jump ala Dave Bowman, that would open up whole new opportunities for us that I would want to participate in. This belief I have does not depend on a God/creator, just the properties of the Universe as I see them.

In reply to an earlier post on May 9, 2011 6:35:57 PM PDT
Yes, I definitely agree with you, as long as our longevities are earned through (continuous) productive work.My main point was that eternal life, granted without uncertainty, would be dull. It must not be forgotten though that the longer our lifetime, the longer we can put off goals or tasks to be completed.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 30, 2011 12:54:46 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 30, 2011 12:59:23 PM PDT
I am a believer and a Catholic, but I can understand how much anger and resentment Christians create in others by our rotten mediocrity in our profession of belief in Christ Jesus. We are a scandal individually and the current Roman Catholic Church, in its moral putridity (cf. sex scandals and all the rest of it) and utter banality (the debased liturgy of post-1970, the "Novus Ordo", with the horridly trivial and vulgar music that goes with it), and I bear patiently the criticisms, all too justified, that unbelievers or non-Catholic Christians (who tend to be selectively unbelieving) feel about the Church and the Holy Catholic Faith.

Dr. Carlson, you write so well about so many topics! I only wish that you would express yourself more frequently about dance and music, delights that justify going on living, for me as for you.

Posted on Oct 22, 2013 8:03:47 PM PDT
Anonymous says:
Wow, what an excellent review of reality.

Posted on Apr 5, 2014 10:09:11 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 6, 2014 7:45:42 PM PDT
A. Gomez says:
If your a chronic procrastinator and have no drive to discover new wonders or to try new things and simply sit and do nothing, think of nothing then well maybe eternal life would be a terrible thing. But what you call "trivial goals" sure they could be put off for a time but are you really so cynical that you would rather not have the opportunity work on those goals, those hopes and dreams that you have or would you really put them off over and over? I have many what you might consider trivial goals and the only things that prevent me from accomplishing them is time and money, but I will get to them because to me they are not so trivial! There is so much to see and do, so many people to get to know and the only thing that is preventing me is a short life. Now with time stretching out before me and my will, my curiosity, my desire to see and discover more I will accomplish much and will keep accomplishing things. I certainly see no end to what I can learn (the human brain seems to have no limits on what it can retain) and the Universe is big, so I'm sure there will always be more to do.

And as far as your "meaningless life" comment that is so very shallow, because people find meaning in life not because their life is short and have to choose which goals they need to work toward or what they can accomplish (not that these things are completely unimportant) but we get meaning from the relationships we have with others our friends and family. A person can work their whole lives at some job, at some company or at a university and at the end in their old age they don't want to die because they had this wonderful job where they made lots of money or they were a talented and appreciated engineer, they don't want to die because they don't want to leave the ones they love. It doesn't matter if a person worked in a field harvesting vegetables or was a renowned astronomer what makes our life is the people that love us and that we love. And when you are lying sick and old on your death bed, you sir, are not going to want to die and you will not want to leave those people that you dearly love and who love you. Whatever you're a doctor of won't matter, only life and friends and family will.
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Dr. Lee D. Carlson

Location: Baltimore, Maryland USA

Top Reviewer Ranking: 4,776