God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

Although God Is Not Great was first published in 2007, I was put off reading it by my atheist acquaintances who advised that it constituted nothing more than a rabid fundamentalist rant; a characteristic more commonly associated with the conservative religious fraternity.

Having taken their advice based on demonstrable wisdom in these matters, I did not bother to purchase a copy, until recently while browsing through a bookstore and coming across it again. For some reason I decided to just see what all the fuss was about and bought a copy. I was pleasantly surprised after finally completing it, because unlike most of my other reading material, I was captivated into reading it, in its entirety, before moving onto something else in between. And, I haven’t been enticed into going out on a murderous rampage, targeting clergymen.

Needless to say, in future when advised not to read something, or when forbidden to read something (or view for that matter), just go ahead and do it anyway. Knowledge, whether good or bad is disseminated so that people can make informed decisions. By restricting yourself, or prohibiting others to only one point of view, defeats the objective of learning. Off course the opposite is also true, but one has to be a little more circumspect when advised or pushed to read (or view) any material.

Anyway, back to the book. Christopher Hitchens has many detractors, most of whom find his anti-theistic stance (some say he’s a god-hater) more infuriating than that of ordinary atheists. As I mentioned earlier, his detractors are not confined to the religious, but even atheists find his approach disquieting. Although the book presents a no-holds-barred attack on religion, his literary style and witty approach (believers would say mocking) makes the book highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable.

The title might not make any sense to believers because it seems to be a contradiction in (atheist) terms: how can something that is not supposed to exist, be great? I have it on good authority that it is actually a witty reversal of the Islamic proclamation Allahuh Akhbar, which translates roughly as God is great. The title has also been called arrogant, but it confirms Hitchens’ anti-theistic stance; it’s as if he’s throwing down a challenge to the object of his revulsion to account for the crass behaviour so vividly described in the book.

The historical approach not only lends weight to his arguments against religious belief, but are extremely informative, especially to the layman who does not have the time or craving for the monumental amounts of research involved. How many believers have sat down to read through the religious texts of competing religions, or even bothered with cursory examinations of these texts? Not too many, I would advance. Yet, many believers hold dogmatic opinions, not only about their own religion, but others as well.

The book is littered with memorable one-liners. A favorite of mine is: in reference to religion (or more specifically Christianity, I think) he calls it ‘a plagiarism of a plagiarism, of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion.’ There are far too many to mention, but I don’t want you reading any of them.

Notable quote:

Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a world-view, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard – or try to turn back – the measurable advances that we have made. Sometimes, true, it will artfully concede them. But this is to offer itself the choice between irrelevance and obstruction, impotence or outright reaction, and , given this choice, it is programmed to select the worse of the two. Meanwhile, confronted with undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex, in the farthest reaches of the known universe, and in the proteins and acids which constitute our nature, religion offers either annihilation in the name of god, or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be “saved.” It is as if someone, offered a delicious and fragrant out-of-season fruit, matured in a painstakingly and lovingly designed hothouse, should throw away the flesh and the pulp and gnaw moodily on the pit.

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

The Greatest Show on Earth

There’s been a lot of interruptions and too little time available over the last half-year or so, but I’ve finally completed reading Dawkins’ latest masterpiece, The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s subtitled The Evidence for Evolution, and boy is there a lot of it in the book.

It’s a strange title for a book on the evidence for evolution, but apparently Dawkins got the idea from a T-shirt given to him bearing the words “Evolution: The Greatest Show on Earth; the Only Game in Town”
Prior to reading this book, I needed no convincing that evolution was a fact, but Dawkins provides plenty of new information that I had not known before. Although it makes for heavy reading in some parts due to the complexity of the sciences involved, the book is geared towards the layman, and is relatively easy to understand.
 
As usual, Dawkins writes in that characteristically eloquent and witty style he’s famous for in his other works, often castigating the creationist lobby, who are referred to as “history deniers.” He’s often been criticised for his approach, but I can find little fault with his stance considering the undeniable ignorance that is prevalent in the religious world; a lot of it wilful in nature.
 
Creationists often point to the so-called missing links in the fossil record, as evidence that evolution is wrong. Dawkins makes a telling point that even if the entire fossil record were not available to scientists, the incontrovertible evidence from molecular biology and genetics is more than enough to prove the veracity of evolution and natural selection.
 
Off course, the book won’t appeal to the fundamentalist religious community; nor will it convince them to change their beliefs about creationism. Wilful ignorance is a pillar of religious strength. However, for those who are interested in actually learning something meaningful about life and the way nature really works, even those who are marginally religious, this book will challenge any preconceived ideas you held, if not convince you that evolution is in fact, a FACT.
 
Notable Quote:
Once again, humans are not descended from monkeys. We share a common ancestor with monkeys. As it happens, the common ancestor would have looked a lot more like a monkey than a man, and we should indeed probably have called it a monkey if we had met it, some 25 million years ago. But even though humans evolved from an ancestor that we could sensibly call a monkey, no animal gives birth to an instant new species, or at least not one as different from itself as a man is from a monkey, or even from a chimpanzee. That isn’t what evolution is about. Evolution not only is a gradual process as a matter of fact; it has to be gradual if it is to do any explanatory work. Huge leaps in a single generation – which is what a monkey giving birth to a human would be – are almost as unlikely as divine creation, and are ruled out for the same reason: too statistically improbable. It would be so nice if those who oppose evolution would take a tiny bit of trouble to learn the merest rudiments of what it is that they are opposing.

Does our school system kill creativity?

South Africans are all too familiar with our very own wretched schooling system which is the direct result of government ineptitude. However, according to Sir Ken Robinson (don’t worry if the name does not sound familiar – what he has to say is more important), schools all over the world may be failing our kids, perhaps not as badly as South African schools at the moment, but bad enough nonetheless.

Ken introduced the idea of creativity-killing schools way back in February 2006 at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Monterey, California. Instead of trying to retell you about it, why don’t you watch his often funny, yet very thought-provoking Talk for yourself? I promise it will be approximately 19½ minutes of your time well spent:

At the TED conference in February this year, Ken Robertson followed up the theme he introduced in 2006, with another awe-inspiring Talk, exhorting us bring on the revolution in education. I hope you’ll find this just as enjoyable, funny and off course thought-provoking, as his previous effort:

Carl Sagan…and the meaning of life

I don’t know why I got up this morning thinking about Carl Sagan. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I went to bed last night thinking about the meaning of life.

If you’ve not heard of Carl Sagan (or not read something he wrote, which is a real sin in my books), you’re either quite young or not scientifically inclined, or both. I’d hate to think that you haven’t heard of or about him, because you’re disinterested. Besides being one of my favorite authors, Carl Sagan was one of the greatest scientists that ever lived; but was probably more famous for his hit television series, Cosmos. Ah! Some of you, do now remember.

Anyway, back to this morning: I was thinking what a damn shame it is that Carl is no longer around; what with all the fantastic experiments being undertaken in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. I’m sure Carl inspired many (if not all) of the physicists working on the LHC project, and he would surely have been the happiest man alive if he could have been a part of that group of scientists, trying to decipher the secrets of the universe.

I can only imagine how he would have described the CERN experiments and the findings in that inimitable literary style, that has inspired so many people around the world. If you have read any of Carl’s books, you would know what I’m talking about; that ability to induce a feeling of absolute wonderment about the natural world in a reader, is something special. What a find; a scientist who could explain science to the layperson, in such simple and awe-inspiring terms.

And… oh yeah! About the meaning of life? There is none. Life has no meaning other than that, which you create for yourself…

Wouldn’t you like to fly before you die?

A debate I’m having with a commenter on one of my blog posts has got me thinking about the nature of inquiry. Is it possible to simply stop inquiring when you believe you have found the right answer, and is it desirable?

When does one stop inquiring about stuff? When the answer makes you feel comfortable, or satisfies a need? What if someone comes along with a different answer or shows you another way? Would you shrug it off, because you’re quite happy with what you have found already? Is comfort better than the disquiet of being doubtful? Would you rather shoot yourself up with some drug because it makes you feel safely exhilarated, or would you rather experience the natural thrill of sky-diving. Both is probably going to kill you, but wouldn’t you rather fly, before you die?

Remember when as a child you constantly peppered your parents and others with those why questions? Why is it when you grow up, you stop asking why? Why do you settle for easy answers? Is it possible that a child understands the nature of inquiry better than an adult?

M, the young [I assume] and no doubt bright women who stirred up all these questions, posed the following:

I’m puzzled by the fact that if a discovery or inquiry leads to anything other than Christianity, it is accepted and applauded. If the road of inquiry ends at the cross of Christ, it is argued that you need to keep searching until you find the truth..Here’s the big question. What does one do “IF” this is the truth…

What I’m curious about is her starting point of inquiry? Did her questioning take her through a gamut of scientific literature, before she settled for the answers provided in the realm of the supernatural, or did she start at the bottom end of the supernatural and settle for the most pleasing or needs-satisfying version? Just a question mind you, not an allegation.

When it comes to inquiry, I would rather have ten different scientific suppositions about something, which leads me to more inquiry, than have one neat, comforting, but supernatural explanation, that stops all enquiry because it relies on the authority of someone you can never question. The end to questioning whether it be self-inflicted for comfort, or enforced through coercion and fear, pronounces the death of human intelligence. When inquiry stops, you might as well be dead.

Ignorance about ignorance

I have just started reading Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show On Earth – The Evidence for Evolution and was discussing it (evolution) with a work colleague the other morning. He mentioned that he was not aware of the validity of evolution as his religious upbringing had steered his thinking about the concept in a negative direction.

This is nothing new. It is quite common for those with a religious bent to assert that evolution is just a theory, as if it was merely a silly proposition or conjecture. It’s not their fault that they were led into thinking so by their parents and religious instructors. I am convinced that these people usually find no need to question the authority of  elders, as it would be construed as disrespectful. Invariably there would be no need to seek out substitutes or alternatives. I mentioned to my colleague that ignorance, although regularly referred to as not being a virtue, would in this instance not be a major transgression.

Ignorance merely points to a lack of knowledge, even though most people use the word to imply something more sinister. However, wilful ignorance is another matter entirely. When one actively disengages one’s mind from searching for, or educating himself or herself about the alternatives, when a dogmatically held belief is shown to be wanting, then that constitutes wilful ignorance.

I remember my colleague responding that “new-found knowledge invariably upsets one’s lifestyle, routine, beliefs, even relationships and thus caused more problems,” when we were interrupted and I could not finish my argument. I sincerely believe that he is open-minded and willing to embrace new knowledge, so for his benefit, my response follows:

Knowledge can never be regarded as harmful by itself. There is no harm in finding things out; you are not obligated to accept what you find. What could be harmful, is the manner in which you choose to use that knowledge. You could use it for good or bad purposes. The key is to evaluate new knowledge critically before accepting or rejecting it. Any other treatment of new knowledge has more chances of causing negative changes in your life. The simple truth is that the truth is not always pretty or palatable.

Truth is good; actively seek it. Change is good; embrace it.

Science is not against religion

While viewing some old videos posted on the thesciencenetwork website, about a discussion program, held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in November 2006, I came across an interesting quote about science and religion.

Entitled Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion & Survival, the program featured several well known scientists, skeptics, atheists and apologists alike. The quote I’m referring to was made by  prominent physicist and Nobel laureate, Steven Weinberg:

Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. It just makes it possible to NOT believe in God.

The connotations from this simple quote are really thought-provoking:

  • Science does not advocate that one may not believe in a god
  • Science in not concerned with proving or disproving the existence of a god
  • Science provides one with the tools (through reasoning, logic and critical thinking among others) to deduce through lack of evidence, that a god may not exist
  • Science compels one to arrive at the above conclusion, but does not compel one to believe through any form of coercion
  • There is no imperative to choose one or the other

One other thing that stood out for me in Professor Weinberg’s presentation was the reference he made to influence in science: science does not have any authority figure or prophet, rather science has experts and heroes.

The need to question vs. the need to believe

Every time I receive an e-mail from someone religious, I have this mental picture of a great toggle switch located in the human brain. This switch can be set to one of two positions:

  • The need to question (because it is natural)
  • The need to believe (because it is comfortable)

I suppose that when we are born, the switch is set to The need to question by default. As we grow older, and are exposed to religious (or even other) ideology, the switch either toggles over to The need to believe, or stays put in the default position. Sometimes, some of us are able to overcome the mind virus that causes the switch over, and manage to re-set the switch back to its default position; however a great majority are only too happy to remain switched over to The need to believe.

The latest example of people afflicted with this unnatural switch position, was provided to me by the sender of an e-mail this weekend, titled God is Great, which purportedly portrays photographs of natural formations, and further asserts in the contents that, We Serve An Awesome God. Obviously this was not the work of the sender, but of someone else; however the sender displayed his Need to believe, by forwarding without any scrutiny:

god's teddy bear

god's teddy bear

Even a cursory examination would lead a person to question the photograph; a person who has his switch set to The need to question, that is. So, I questioned, and pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. I found the photograph below which should always accompany this one, as a set.

Apparently god's rabbit

Apparently god's rabbit

Fact: the above two photographs are stills taken from the 2001 French film, Amelie, and are exposed as fakes by Snopes.com. The simple truth is that the original composer, by not including this photograph in the God is Great e-mail, either intended to deliberately mislead (as a prank), or deliberately lie to promote his religious cause, knowing that there are willing people out there, switched to The need to believe.

Consider the following example, also contained in the e-mail, and which I have exposed in a previous post. The original is the one further below, without the “hands.” And surprise! Does not appear in the mail.

god's hands

god's hands (allegedly)

Un-doctored cloud photograph

Un-doctored cloud photograph

Finally, this photograph which accompanied the other two exposed (no pun intended) photographs above, is so obvious, it just screams “I am fake, stupid.”

Supposedly, god's sleeping cat

Supposedly, god's sleeping cat

So, tell me, which way is your switch toggled; The need to question or The need to believe?

Render unto Darwin the things which are undeniably natural…

Today is Darwin Day. Beyond that however, today, the 12th of February 2009, marks the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th Anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species.

Those of us who take an interest in Science and such things, will recognize and appreciate the significance of this day.  Most of us who do, are usually Atheists, but not necessarily so. Our choice to recognize this day and honor one of the greatest men who ever lived, will lead to us being accused of worshipping Darwin as our “god.” Consequently Evolution or Natural Selection will be labeled as Atheist religions. This is not new. Some of us may get hot under the collar and pass disparaging remarks about this religious indiscretion, but most will however just get on with enjoying the occasion.

I therefore call upon all rationalists to just take in the day, savor the significance, and revel in the pure joy of free thinking.

Are You Feeding the Right Wolf?

I received this absolute gem in my (e)mailbox today and couldn’t resist sharing. I tried finding out on the net if this piece of wisdom actually originates with the Native American tribe, but couldn’t get confirmation. It has been blogged quite often though, which suggests that it has been around awhile.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all.
One is Evil. – It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is Good. – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”