Book Review: Dawkins’ Brief Candle

Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in ScienceBrief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science by Richard Dawkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I feel this book helped me understand Dawkins considerably more than I did previously. It also deepened my appreciation for him and his life’s work – in zoology, evolutionary biology, religion, philosophy, and science in society.

There is no sign of him being mean-spirited, and I have not seen that from him in his daily life either. I may not always agree with him but he presses me with his arguments to examine why I do not. In that way, he is a great teacher.

His emotions are simple, direct, and natural, while his intellect is deep and thought is complex. I do not think he will be remembered by history as a bully or strident or insulting (none of which do I think he is); he will be memorialized and regarded for pushing us to think and for challenging society on some topics (and certain people and bad ideas) that REALLY needed to be challenged.

Other than some long quotes from other sources, and poems that I could do without, this was a good read for those who know Richard Dawkins’ work.

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Why we have no use for a disembodied intellect – a book review

50 mythsA review of 50 Great Myths About Atheism (2013) by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk

I was excited to find the familiar name of Russell Blackford in a book in my local Pennsylvania library. I had to check it out. It turned out to be delightfully enlightening.

The 50 myths about atheism are grouped into themes. “What is atheism?” is addressed at beginning and end. How broad or narrow is the term? Is it absence of belief or denial of all theistic effects in the world? Is it akin to Marxism, Satanism, is it political, or just another religion? That last question, “Is atheism a religion?” requires asking the underlying question “what is a religion?”. This gets complicated.

Using my own life experience, I could attempt to answer some of these but philosophers answer it better. I found this book so useful as a reference to addressing these frequently asked questions, I must purchase it.

I understand why religionists would believe these myths and reject the philosophy of nonbelief. Atheism threatens the values association with religion. Believing such myths, such as “atheism robs life of meaning and purpose,” is a way to reinforce the believer’s own belief. I get it, I just find it untenable. This philosophical treatment highlights the complexity of human social interactions and issues. There may be no one “right” answer.

Popular opinion is rooted in confusion, ignorance, pride, and tradition. Myths reveal people’s fear within themselves. Aiming these value judgements at atheists externalizes these fears to a group. There are endless examples of society doing this with other groups as well.

This book is fair to religion in general. Yet in addressing several myths, the authors take on popular religious apologists. One in particular, Dinesh D’Souza, comes out looking like the self-righteous fathead that he is. Rational discussion reveals how ignorant and wrong their anti-freethought rhetoric is.

The section on why atheism arose contained excellent information. The authors collect thoughts from various references, noting the following factors: rise in alternative philosophy, the growth in secular theories of ethics, the success of science and rise in natural understanding of world, the increase in investigation into Biblical texts, the questioning of tradition, religions conceptions and the subsequent decline in literal belief in doctrines, an emphasis on logic and analytic investigations, the effect of wars and the feeling of abandonment by God, the advent of mass communication and rise of urbanization all mixed together to draw people towards an atheistic outlook.

My particular interest was the role science played in this shift. The last chapter includes the discussion of science versus religion and the dwindling human need to invoke a disembodied intellect as a cause. Humans grasped the fruitfulness of a naturalistic approach of science and a fruitlessness in invoking supernatural hypotheses. This clearly suggests “we live in a world without miraculous agents and powers.” It was not the intent for science to undermine religion, but the process is what it is. Maybe someday that will change, note the authors, but we’ve gone so far down the methodological naturalism path, it’s not realistic to think it will. “We live a world very different from what the world religions once seemed to describe.” Thanks, Science!

Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.

Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.

Are science and religion compatible? The short answer is “no”. The long answer is “no”. I once thought Gould’s NOMA was a nice idea. I see how it is not useful now. The authors lucidly unpack the reasoning and the attempts to create a truce or to mesh the two “magisteria,” but as I go on through life, I agree this just will not work. Early work, especially Newton’s, appealed to the actions of a God. Early modern science was accommodating to Christianity, keeping within a narrow range of natural philosophy. Until it didn’t.

This was my favorite take away: If the bible was divinely inspired, why don’t scientific findings that we have made match up with what is written? When the religious doctrines have to be modified or reinterpreted to conform with man’s discoveries, what does that say about the Bible and doctrines being divinely inspired to begin with? Yep, more solid rocks in the foundation for an atheistic view that the authors conclude is the “honest” and “reasonable” worldview to have.

Useful discussions on these issues are not simple. This book makes examining the myths, misconceptions, and arguments about religion and lack of religion coherent and compelling. I strongly recommend it.

Deliver me from another ridiculous “demons everywhere” story – Book Review

A review of Deliver Us from Evil, R. Sarchie with L.C. Cool

deliverI shall cut to the main point. I didn’t set out to read this one. I saw it in the library and it looked like a fast read. It’s important to understand what’s being put out there as “true” stories. As usual, it was the same faith-based nightmare fuel meant to scare people into being more pious and to show that the author’s religion is the one true faith.

Ralph Sarchie is a NYC cop but he has taken on a role to deal with demonic “perps” as well as the genuine human horrors he sees everyday. Demons are criminals, exorcism is the “spiritual equivalent of an arrest”.

A movie of the same name came out last summer. This BBC piece on why exorcisms are so fascinating notes the same fears appeared in many movies about exorcism – a vulnerable child is involved. This is a strong hook likely exaggerated EVEN MORE in a movie that I doubt bears any resemblance to real life.

Also a strong theme is the need to feel that the world has aspects of good and evil and that the former will triumph over the latter. That simple dichotomy, good vs evil, is what this book is all about. It is stories from one guy who, with the help of others including the crack(pot) demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren [red flag], does “the Work” (of the Lord). Pre-enlightenment diabolic drama set in modern crime-ridden times – that’s what this is.

Sarchie is deeply, DEEPLY steeped in religious belief. His traditional Catholic faith permeates everything. His life revolves around God. He states in the afterword that this book is for people of faith and those paranormal investigators that come across this stuff. It’s not for skeptics who don’t take his belief-based stories at face value. He’s right there. In my opinion, these stories make no sense except in terms of complicated social, economic and psychological problems that are all but impossible to fix in the short term. But the route he takes is to do an exorcism, then pray a lot, (the afflicted should go to church more,) come back for another exorcism and it will probably be OK as long as God is the center of everything.

Possession used to be uncommon, says Sarchie, now these scumbag entities are all over, in our houses and inside our bodies. Why? The occult.

This is such a old, tired, baseless and NAIVE argument. He strongly asserts that Satanists are friggin’ EVERYWHERE you look, trying to recruit kids into their coven. Wearing an occult symbol or reading a grimoire can open you up to demonic forces. The Ouija board is a wicked occult trap and should be outlawed. Non-religious meditation is an invitation to be taken over by evil. There is zero evidence for any of these claims which are based on fear.

The idea that Satanic forces are at work committing crimes is from the Satanic Panic era of the 80s and 90s when cops were taught to recognize work of Satanists. The trouble is, there was no evidence that such organized cults ever existed and carried out these atrocities. But every anomaly was interpreted to be related to this evil cult permeating our wholesome society. Nonsense. All of it.

There have always been occult interests in society (but there hadn’t always been one or more exorcism-themed movies every year to enhance the acceptance). I see Sarchie’s stories as typical anecdotes of people who have a underlying point to make (go to God and to church) and a drive to convince listeners. It’s also not difficult to understand that Sarchie truly does believe he’s encountered supernatural evil many times, even in his own home. That’s his worldview. It is… fantastic. I mean that in the sense of being like fantasy. He states that if you call yourself a Christian, then you must believe the devil is REAL. Really real, not just a metaphor for evil.

All the angels, hierarchies in Heaven, Bible stories, all real.

Satan’s minions? Real.

Poltergeists? Ghosts? Naw, probably demons.

He hates when paranormal investigators fool people into thinking they just have a pesky but harmless noisy ghost. Only a diabolical force can move heavy things. Human ghosts are weak. Parapsychologists and other science-minded people [sneer] are clueless — to “debunk” a devil means that he has succeeded in fooling you that he isn’t real. To deny the devil provides him with power. What a convenient dodge of scientific testing.

In Sarchie’s (or the co-writers) religious self-righteousness, he sometimes claims to know better than the priest. He identifies a serious problem that some priest don’t even believe in the devil. None of this modern Catholicism stuff, only old school tradition applies. However, in a very New Agey twist, Sarchie describes chakras as places of psychic energy in the body. Demons can enter through these.

He uses pieces of the true cross on these spots to annoy the demons into leaving the afflicted. (I couldn’t help but wish for a double blinded study of relics and holy water with controls in an encounter with someone who thinks he is possessed. No science allowed in the realm of the spiritual, though.)

Your aura shows if you are free of sin; he can see its color. A strong aura repels demons. There is no word on where he gets this information from. I’d not heard it before. But I’m wondering how he might explain why atheists don’t seem to get possessed very often…

Other than those outliers, this book is preachy from beginning to end. It contains contradictions and non sequiturs and, frankly, some stuff that is just made up: A woman’s heart disease was brought on by demons in the downstairs apartment! “Still skeptical?” he asks, let me tell you ANOTHER story that is not referenced or documented. This is hardly convincing unless you are already ensconced in the good vs evil belief system.

There is not just one reason or a few quibbles why I find the entire concept of demons, Satan and exorcism un-compelling — there are many and various solid reasons to consider myriad alternative explanations to “demons”, such as illness and psychological conditions. This child-like belief in God and the Devil manifest makes the complicated human life into a comic book, oversimplifying the very natural and difficult trials of modern existence. I feel those who condone exorcisms are more often harming the people they think they are helping. Such unshakeable commitment to a supernatural worldview that has been displaced by natural understanding centuries ago is a tragedy. But, he sure leads a dramatic life, one that I wouldn’t want. I certainly feel sympathy for his victims and even for him to take on other people’s emotional wreckage. I’d love for more support to be made available. However, that recognition does not make demonic possession genuine or justifiable.

The people undergoing the exorcisms in this book are restrained either by cloth ties or by volunteers. Sarchie states the demon must be given “no quarter”, “no mercy”, it must be “forced out”. Here’s where this shit gets dangerous. He briefly mentions the death of Anneliese Michel, as if the devils inside her caused her death instead of the very real torture she endured. He made NO mention of the fact that she was malnourished and dehydrated due to the “rites” of exorcism and her parents and the priest were charged with a crime. I don’t care what deity you subscribe to or not but this is a human being, not a supernatural entity of your imagination. Exorcism is unethical and wrong!

The book ends with DIY prayers. I kid you not.

I don’t recommend this book; I won’t be seeing the movie; I don’t believe in Satan and his associated fiends of Hell. Demons are a creation of the human mind and not “real”.

Or, the devil won with me. You decide. I don’t care. Life goes on, same as yesterday. You damned deluded exorcists — your hatred for the devil and your sanctimonious pomp and exaggeration ruins people’s lives.

From the Amish to Voodoo: Unusual comparative religion (Book Review)

It is my opinion that public school children should be taught a class in comparative religion.

I recall a cursory review of the history of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism as part of social studies but Americans are pretty clueless about other religions besides their own. That’s a societal flaw. I’m not particularly interested in common religions; I have a general idea how they practice. But uncommon religions are pretty darn strange, and even more interesting to me when they involve occult practices or bizarre ideas. It’s about time I found out more about them.

Karen Stollznow’s book God Bless America is subtitled “Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in The United States” so I was pretty sure it would contain some zingers. This book is a parade of information about the lesser known and controversial (OK, weird) religious beliefs of America and it is suitable as a text for a class on world religions. The title is not very fitting because it’s not about God so much as about the people who invest themselves in these unusual belief systems. Stollznow goes to meet many of them firsthand. They would have creeped me out.

Continue reading

Arrogant ignorance In the Name of God: Book Review

Christian Science-based faith healing communities in U.S. today are failures of their own self-destructive ideas. At least that’s the conclusion you can’t help but make when a group sacrifices their own children to be “pious” and respected. I found this disturbing tale laid out in In the Name of God:The True Story of the Fight to Save Children from Faith-Healing Homicide by Cameron Stauth . I recommend this book for anyone even remotely curious about faith healing in the U.S. and about the practices of Christian science churches. It’s important to recognize the stories behind the news of children who die from medical neglect.

I don’t recall how the author or publisher decided to send me a review copy of this book. I suspect it was because on Doubtful News I cover the charges, trials and sentencing of parents who practice withholding health care. I didn’t understand. I could not wrap my head around it. How can you be in the 21st century and eschew the standard of care for sick kids? This book helped me understand that these are people who think that religious freedom trumps all else, even their child’s right to live.

While examining stories for Doubtful News, I noticed a wave of faith healing deaths or near deaths coming out of Oregon City, OR from a religious community known as The Followers. The Followers of Christ had their roots in the teachings of the Christian Science church founded by Mary Baker Eddy. Mary grew rich and famous by teaching others how to heal without officially practicing medicine. This method had no overhead. But it had consequences. Many people recovered normally or had illnesses that make life difficult but not end it. If they died, it was “God’s Will”. And, it is their choice, thanks to religious freedom, to allow their child or themselves to die. God takes all of the credit, none of the blame. The Followers of Christ turned out to be one of the most lethal churches in America basing their teachings on literal interpretation of the Bible, medical avoidance, shunning, and fear of Hell. There is also the Faith Tabernacle church who has seen a pattern of dead children. Even repeat offenders. (Schaible case) Continue reading

Young Earth Creationists’ sneaky strategy to be scientifical

Earth magazine has an intriguing and disturbing article by Steven Newton describing how geologists, who actually represent the Institute for Creation Research, the Discovery Institute and Christian universities, subtly promote the view that Noah’s flood was responsible for geological observations in the American West. Their new strategy is to give talks, posters and guide field trips at a premier geologic conference.

How can this be? Well, if you’ve ever been on one of these field trips, you know they can be a jargony nightmare. Even as a professional, when it comes to very specialized terms and labeling used in petrology and sedimentology, vocabulary is wicked tough to learn and remember. If this is your introduction to a particular feature or region, you look to the expert guiding the trip to provide you with information. You likely do not have enough background yet to form good questions or recognize some dubious interpretation.

The article’s author, a director for the National Center for Science Education, went on the trip run by five co-leaders. The Creationist content was not openly disclosed. Continue reading

Pretend science

Playing Pretend Science

In order to be technical, like science, pseudoscientists engage in a method of data gathering that is not haphazard or lazy. Intricate collection and analysis is often a part of pseudoscientific activity. They may produce enormous bodies of work. Commitment to a cause can prompt “energetic intellectual effort” [1]. The motives and ‘sciencey’ feel of the whole endeavor wins over those nonscientists who can’t recognize that it simply fails to meet scientific standards. Yet, for all the diligent work, the accumulated evidence can still amount to nothing of substance.
The public is happy to admire science as long as they don’t have to understand it deeply. Sham inquiry plays to the admiration of science by the public. A lack of familiarity with how science is supposed to work is a major reason why the public has trouble recognizing counterfeit science. Add an ‘-ology’ to the end of whatever you study and it acts like a toupe of credibility – to hide the lack of substance. The public is vulnerable to pseudoscience that resembles real inquiry and genuine knowledge.
The following are three examples of current pseudosciences. They all don the accoutrements of science without delivering the substance [2]. The field of cryptozoology is the likeliest of the three to hold the interest of real scientists these days because it is associated with the genuine fields of zoology, anthropology and wildlife biology and chock-full of amateur scientists. Ghost hunting is predominantly nonscientists who enjoy using technology and the new view that it gives them on the world. Creationism is a entirely different beast grown completely from religious ideology and dressed in a cheap and transparent scientific costume. This sham does not even fool courts of law but it continues to exert tremendous ideological force on the public.

Cryptozoology
Ghost hunting
Creationism
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[1] Haack, S. (1995). “Concern for Truth and Why it Matters”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 58.
[2] Bunge, M. (1995).“In Praise of Tolerance To Charlatanism in Academia”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 104.

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Irrefutable

Science doesn’t work by beginning with the premise and searching for evidence to support it or, holding onto the premise no matter what evidence contradicts it. This is true close-mindedness.

A theory can be worded in such a way that it can never be shown to be false. This is made very easy by incorporating the supernatural. For example, “God did it”. How might one prove otherwise when the God or creator can suspend natural law indiscriminately?

Sham inquiry researchers will play down the importance of certain evidence and explain it away and ignore or rationalize failure. They will refuse to critically examine their logic. Instead, they resort frequently to special pleading. The fallacy of special pleading is when someone argues that a case is an exception to a rule based upon some characteristic that does not really warrant that an exception be made [1]. It’s an excuse. Using ad hoc explanations to explain away disconfirming evidence is a means to ensure that no conceivable piece of evidence produced will effect the outcome. The theory is nonfalsifiable.

Another fail-safe option to protect your theory against refutation is to place the burden of proof on the skeptic, which does not make logical sense. When this tool is used in an argument, one can conclude that rules of logic and fair play have been thrown out.

When a proponent asserts absolute certainty in their interpretation, and will not provide a reasonable answer to “What evidence would make your theory false?” (or worse, requires the scientist to “Prove me wrong”) it is a clear signal of pseudoscience. Intellectual honesty would require one to admit that any theory may eventually someday be proven false but can never be proven absolutely true.

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[1] Carey, S. S. (2004). A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Wadsworth. p. 19

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