somewhat daily mutterings

/Books A Little Light Vacation Reading

While in Oregon I managed to knock a couple of books off the pile: The Religion War, by Scott Adams, and Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, by Julian Baggini.

I think about God a lot. Not in a worshipful way, but in a curious way: why do humans tend to want/need to believe in some mysterious personality running the universe? Why do folks that are seemingly rational in every other way, throw it out the window when it comes to religion? Is there a God, and if there is, why would it have to be the way humans have characterized it? Isn't God more a reflection of our fears and desires than an actual picture of reality?

Well, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction doesn't provide any answers to those questions (nor did I expect it to). It's kind of a work of atheist apologetics, a short course in the anti-belief (not anti-god) arguments that exist. If you've done much philosophical or theological reading at all, none of the arguments will be new to you. It was a quick, enjoyable read, and kind of nice to have the arguments available in a short format, but I felt that some of the arguments were not presented as forcefully as they could have been. Perhaps that's due to the limitations of the "very short introduction" format.

One useful tidbit I gleaned from the book is that (at least according to the writer) christian apologetics is not really useful in proving the existence of God or promoting belief, but is more geared to attempting to show that belief in God is not completely inconsistent with rationality. In other words, apologetics is preaching to the choir.

- o O o -

The Religion War actually suggests some interesting answers to the questions I ponder. It's another thought-provoking book from Scott Adams, who seems to like to cleanse his palate with a bit of philosophy in between the "Dilbert" books and comics. This book is sort-of a sequel to God's Debris, his first short-form foray into philosophy, cosmology and theology.

The setting is earth, approximately 30 years from about now, when the Christians and Muslims have raised the stakes of their religious war to global, all-encompassing proportions. The leaders of each side, each absolutely convinced that he knows the will of God, and indeed that God is on his side, are locked in a struggle of wills and weaponry.

The narrative of the story concerns how the strife is resolved, but that's not as interesting as the proposals about the nature of reality and "god" that are thrown in almost as an afterthought in various exchanges between "the Avatar" (AKA "the smartest person in the universe) and other characters. The interesting thing is that Adams manages to challenge conventional beliefs about, and conceptions of, God without coming off as overly antagonistic to any particular side (but that's coming from me, and I'm impossible to offend in this area).

Posted: Wed Aug 10 21:14:47 -0700 2005

/Books Freakonomics, by Levitt and Dubner

I just finished this book, and having just started reading it today at lunch, it's safe to say that I could not put it down. Long story short, it's a critique of "conventional thinking" on a variety of topics. The critique is from the point-of-view of an economist's analysis of available data.

Topics are as varied as "what are the real causes of the decline of crime in the 90's", to "what impact does the 'obsessive' parent's attention to tiny details of a child's life really have to do with future performance". The answers the authors derive are often surprising and always interesting.

One of the points that the authors put forth is how people are drawn to the "truths" that support their preconceptions and emotions, rather than looking deeper into the actual facts (much less accepting them when presented).

Take gun control, for instance. Liberal parents may not want their child to visit a gun owner's home due to safety issues, but feel perfectly fine letting their child visit a home with a pool. This, despite the fact that children die orders of magnitude more often in pool accidents than in gun accidents. However, no matter how you argue the facts, these parents won't feel right about the gun owner's home. (By the way, I'm pretty socially liberal, and don't own a gun, but I'm also not in favor of gun control).

The evidence given in this book for our preference toward "the truths we like" helps support, in my mind, what I've always felt intuitively: people choose the channels of information that best suit what they want to hear, and call the rest biased.

Posted: Sun May 22 19:24:26 -0700 2005

/Books The Right Nation : Conservative Power in America
Micklethwaite, Wooldridge

Finally, after months of drinking this book through a very thin straw, I'm done. The fact that I read it so slowly is no reflection on the readability of the book, but more on the amount of time I chose to spend on it, for whatever reason. It was well worth the read, but a bad side effect of reading it so slowly is that I've now lost track of what the book specifically had to say on many topics - the content is now installed in my brain as is any other general "knowledge". So, all I can offer here is the impression the book left on me. The book is an effective chronicle of the rise of the right in America over the past twenty years or so (though it digs much further back for the seeds of the rise). As a somewhat left-leaning centrist, I considered it to be pretty even-handed in its treatment of conservatives and liberals, which seems to be a rare thing these days.

Posted: Thu Nov 25 07:12:39 -0800 2004

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