This was my fourth attempt at reading Breaking the Spell. Back when I first got interested in nonbelief, it was one of four books I purchased physicalThis was my fourth attempt at reading Breaking the Spell. Back when I first got interested in nonbelief, it was one of four books I purchased physical copies of at the bookstore, along with The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith. In fact, it was the first of those four books I decided to read, because I was struggling with my own dwindling faith, and the title seemed the least confrontational so I figured it would be the best to ease myself into things. I quickly got tired of the book and abandoned it. In fact, I abandoned the whole effort, and it wasn't until a few years later that I resumed my journey by reading The End of Faith, which I really enjoyed and then plowed through the other two books.
I felt guilty that I had skipped over this book, the only one of the "Four Horsemen" books I hadn't read. I wondered if I had perhaps been unfair, and disliked it only because of where I was, and not what the book was. So I picked up the same paperback copy I had purchased years earlier, and again tried to read it. Again, I quickly found myself losing interest, and it was never a book that I "stopped reading", it was just one that I never reached for when I felt like reading.
The third time was shortly after I'd gotten an ebook reader. I figured, with a huge library of books at my fingertips, I'd be more likely to read this one, so I tried once again. I got the ebook version of Breaking the Spell, and for the third time found myself losing interest. I had officially moved this book to my 'will-never-read' shelf on Goodreads, and had resigned myself to simply never bother reading this book. I was bummed about it, and I couldn't quite figure out why I disliked it so much, but there are so many great books out there, I decided I couldn't bother caring any more.
Then, out of nowhere, I was logging into Audible.com one day and noticed that Breaking the Spell had been released on audiobook format. Audiobook! This was the key! I could listen at the gym, on the bus, in the car, and walking around downtown. This was how I was going to get this book read, I thought.
Well, I'm happy to say, I did actually manage to get all the way through Breaking the Spell this time. I am, however, unhappy to say I still hated it, and largely forced myself to complete it out of a weird sense of obligation and completion. Less because I enjoyed the book, and more because I knew this was my last chance.
After getting all the way through it, I finally figured out what it was I hated so much about it, and sharing that will be the entirety of my review of it, aside from the personal historical lesson above.
I've read a lot of these "atheist screed" type books in the past few years. What is interesting is that the background of the authors of each of these books is directly reflected in the content and style of the book itself. Richard Dawkins is a world-renowned scientist and professor, so it's no surprise that "The God Delusion" is written very scientifically, citing as many studies as possible and outlying arguments in a clear, logical way. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, but also has a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy, so The End of Faith is a little less scientific than Dawkins's work, and a bit more meandering. Carl Sagan was a scientist and educator, so The Demon-Haunted World is extremely scientific, but also very approachable and friendly. Christopher Hitchens was a debator, a journalist, so God is Not Great draws upon a lot of current events and political angles, and reads like a very long OpEd piece.
So what's Daniel Dennett? He's a philosopher. If this fact doesn't give you pause, you probably haven't read a lot written by philosophers, or you are one. Philosophers have a tendency to ramble forever, carefully mapping out their argument in excruciating detail. There's a point in the argument where a normal reader might say "alright, I get it" only to discover they are approximately 40% through the entire argument, and must now eye-roll their way through the remaining 60%. Philosopher's seem to like questions more than answers, and like to pose tons and tons of questions, and consider every possible angle about a particular point, including purely hypothetical ones with little to no basis in reality. The short way of saying this is: a lot of philosophers love the sound of their own voices. This is obviously a mean generalization, but I have to admit I've found it to hold true surprisingly often.
Dennett's Breaking the Spell is no exception to this. It is exactly what one might expect from a philosopher, illustrating every negative aspect of stereotypical philosopher writings. Case in point: the first third of the book is spent merely justifying the existence of the rest of the book. What would be a normal author's introductory chapter is, instead, nearly 100 pages of droning about the need for his book. Can science study religion? SHOULD science study religion? Ugh.
In fact, the TITLE of the book, "Breaking the Spell" seems to indicate that the book will be about what we can do to break society free of the cycle of religiosity. The only chapter that even remotely deals with that, "Now What Do We Do?" is the final chapter, a mere 32 pages of the book's 340 (non-appendix) pages. Another (mild) irritation is Dennett's constant citations of his own previous work. I understand if an author wants to point readers to his previous work because it might be interesting, or help articulate a point, but it seems almost comically frequent in Breaking the Spell. There's a palpable sense of pretentiousness.
I don't want to give the wrong impression. It's not that the book contains nothing of value. On the contrary, there are some really enjoyable bits to the book, some really interesting points, and a lot of food for thought. The problem is that of padding: an interesting point that should take up a merel paragraph to be accurately conveyed to a reader might instead consist of a few dozen pages instead. Every moment reading the book feels like wading through haystack after haystack looking for needles. They are nice needles, but you can't help but ask why Dennett couldn't be bothered to simply edit the haystacks out.
There are lots of similar books that are more informative, or more interesting out there, so it's tough to recommend this book. I know a lot of people love it, so I think a big part of the issue is my own general distaste for this particular kind of writing. ...more
Richard Carrier presents a very small book focused on a very narrow, specific issue. Rather than addressing all of religion, or theology, or the conceRichard Carrier presents a very small book focused on a very narrow, specific issue. Rather than addressing all of religion, or theology, or the concept of a god entirely, Carrier simply looks at the definition of the Christian God, as supplied by various Christian, and presents precisely four arguments. He does not bring a wide variety of arguments with varying levels of strength, like whywontgodhealamputees.com approaches it. Instead, he brings his best four to the table, the four that he intends to use to absolutely decimate Christianity, and leave it's smoldering corpse in the dust.
To this end, I think he succeeds. The four arguments in the book, summarized as "God is Silent" (basically that, if the Christian God existed, his message would be much clearer), "God is Inert" (the problem of evil), "Wrong Evidence" (all known science contradicts claims of the Christian God), and "Wrong Universe" (the universe is exactly as one would predict without a God, and exactly as one would not predict with one), are all very strong and well-presented. Carrier addresses potential questions about his conclusions, and he walks through his arguments very slowly and methodically, building things up from initial assumptions in a logical and straightforward way. His stress on semi-formalisms is nearly pedantic at times, but it gets the point across.
This is a short, solid book explaining why, even if God exists, the Christian God does not (for any useful definition of "Christian"). It's written in a matter-of-fact way that doesn't really handle religion with kid gloves, but still lacks the vitriol of many other atheistic texts. In other words, this is a decent book for nonbelievers to give family or friends that keep giving them shit. Carrier never strays from his central thesis or even discusses much of his other beliefs/research outside of said thesis (impressive, since he holds the controversial mythicist position regarding Jesus). The book is very similar to Letter to a Christian Nation in this regard - a short, focused, easy read intended primarily for Christians to read....more
I'm a huge fan of Bart Ehrman. I've learned more from reading his pop-history books than the work of any other individual author, and I've found him tI'm a huge fan of Bart Ehrman. I've learned more from reading his pop-history books than the work of any other individual author, and I've found him to be a fascinating and engaging writer. I have looked forward to every single book he's released in the last 10 years, eagerly awaiting the day it's available and devouring it.
Because of my admiration for Ehrman and his work, it brings me a great deal of pain to admit that "Did Jesus Exist?" is Ehrman's worst book, at least of those I've read. And it's not his "worst book" in the way that "Eyes Wide Shut" is Kubrick's "worst movie" where even the worst output of a visionary is better than average. Did Jesus Exist? is a bad book. I hate it.
Let me first set the stage. I am nonreligious but a big fan of historical, evidence-based information about religion and Christianity in general. Most importantly, I have always taken it for granted that Jesus was a real human being who actually lived. I've never considered myself a mythicist, in that I've never taken the position or even taken seriously the position that Jesus is pure myth.
So Ehrman's central thesis, that Jesus really did exist, did not strike me as particularly controversial, and I largely found myself wanting to read it not on the strength of it's premise, but on the strength of it's writer. I hoped Ehrman would quickly prove Jesus existed and then move on to more interesting topics for consideration.
The book starts off on the wrong foot, with an absolute barrage of ad hominem attacks. Ehrman lists a number of mythicists and dismisses their arguments out of hand, on the grounds that they do not have his academic credentials. This infuriated me - Ehrman is far too smart to rely on these kind of silly ad hominem attacks, why did he devote almost entire chapter to them? If these mythicists' claims are bunk, simply address their claims, there is no need to also argue that they are unqualified to make these arguments. What's more, these claims aren't even accurate - I'm not familiar with many mythicists, but I do know the name of one person Ehrman singles out: Richard Carrier. Ehrman claims that Carrier's degree is in "classics" which is not even true, Carrier has a degree in early Christian history.
Listening to Ehrman academically urinate on his opponents in such a personal attack set an awful tone for the rest of the book. It made Ehrman seem unsure of his own claims, relying not just on the strength of his arguments but on the weakness of his opponents, and it put a bad taste in my mouth. There's little I hate more than a terrible argument in favor of a position with which I agree.
Ehrman discusses the burden of proof, arguing that we should assume Jesus existed, and place the burden of disproof on deniers. This is nonsense, and it's one of the favorite arguments of the religious to require nonbelievers disprove the existence of God. Jesus's existence is not the default assumption - it's been MY personal default assumption simply because I assumed sufficient evidence existed but I was unaware of it, but Ehrman arguing that this is the scientific perspective is baloney. Ehrman reluctantly accepts that, though he believes the burden of proof truly rests with mythicists, he's willing to indulge them and pretend the burden is on him, at least for the duration of the book. If that's the position you're taking for the book, why bother with paragraphs arguing that you shouldn't have to prove it anyway? Again, it stinks of Ehrman's lack of confidence in his position.
The book goes on to present, broadly, a number of mythicist positions, then attempt to dismantle them one by one. What was so stunning about this portion of the book was that, nearly every single time, I found the straw-man version of a mythicist position relatively compelling, and was let-down by Ehrman's attempt to destroy it, finding each one full of fallacies and unconvincing arguments.
For example, Ehrman more or less acknowledges that virtually no mention is made of Jesus outside of the bible itself, which I found surprising and made me somewhat more sympathetic to the mythicist view. But then he proceeds to provide poor reasons why one should not require Jesus to be mentioned outside of the Bible, and that we can use the Bible as evidence alone. That's extremely unconvincing considering the sheer number of problems the Bible has as an historical volume, which Ehrman acknowledges but argues around. In particular, he argues that, while we don't have any writings of people who knew Jesus, we have writings from an author who quotes someone who claims to "know people who know the apostles or companions of them." Know people who know the apostles or companions of them? So that's Jesus->Apostles->Companions->People who know them->First Author->Quoting Author? I find that source pretty much useless.
After each fairly well-presented mythicist view, Ehrman proceeds to take the reader through a series of mental gymnastics to argue against it. Each time, Ehrman's arguments are less convincing than the version of the mythicist view he presented before it. At one point, Ehrman admits that not a single author of any New Testament books knew or even claimed to know Jesus personally (pretty damning), but then argues that Paul claims to have met James (Jesus's brother) and Peter (Jesus's best friend). How do we know that Paul actually met them? Because he claimed to, and he insisted, in the passage describing meeting them, that he wasn't lying.
Ehrman acknowledges that Paul failed to quote much of anything Jesus had to say, even when the quotation was directly relevant to the point he was trying to make (again, pretty damning), but then handwaves over it without much of any satisfying explanation. Consistently, the mythicist view is the more convincing, and I wasn't even a mythicist when I started reading the book! Ehrman's argumentation is so bad in this book that he actually managed to convince me of the exact OPPOSITE point of view from the one he was arguing, as I was left with a sense of "really? If these are the best arguments for a historical Jesus, maybe the mythicists are right" after nearly every section.
It is not until about halfway through the book, in Chapter 6, that Ehrman finally makes an argument that I found pretty convincing. It goes like this: the Jewish people had a set of expectations about the Messiah, none of which included him suffering and dying on a cross (the interpretations of Old Testament writings that argue that the messiah was always meant to suffer are real stretches). But Christians argued that, against expectation, Jesus was the Messiah. Christians had a very hard time convincing Jews that the concept of a suffering Messiah was reasonable, in fact it was the biggest hurdle to converting Jews at the time. So if Jesus was going to be more-or-less made up, why not make him up to be consistent with expectation, which would make proselytization easier. In other words, there MUST have been a man named Jesus who actually WAS executed, because Christians went through so much effort to coalesce the notions of the Messiah with the fact that the person they claimed to be the Messiah suffered and died on a cross. This effort indicates Jesus really was a man, since they had to admit that their claimed Messiah was execute, it must have been because everyone knew it.
Similarly, the Messiah was predicted to be born in Bethlehem. Matthew and Luke both contain stories of Jesus birth, and both give different accounts of why Jesus, who was born to a couple from Nazareth, found himself born in Bethlehem. The Gospel of Luke tells a story about a huge census that required Mary and Joseph return to Bethlehem to and Mary just happened to give birth while they were at it (an account for which there is no historical evidence), while Matthew gives an account of King Herod forcing Mary and Joseph to flee from their home, which resulted in Jesus being born in Bethlehem. If Jesus was purely myth, he would have just been invented to have been from Bethlehem, as the ancient scriptures predicted. The fact that Matthew and Luke both had to come up with unbelievable, credulity-straining (contradictory) stories explaining why a person from Nazareth was the messiah indicates that they had to explain away why Jesus must still be the messiah despite evidence to the contrary for ancient people. In other words, there must have ACTUALLY been a man named Jesus who everyone knew was from Nazareth to make Matthew and Luke jump through such hoops to smooth over the plot hole.
I found these arguments quite convincing, since they show believers making sense of historical facts that everyone at the time knew, indicating that they must have been true. These arguments closed the book on the matter for me. I cannot fathom why it took 6 chapters for Ehrman to finally make a convincing argument for the historicity of Jesus, or why it was preceeded by pages upon pages of elitist, ad hominem attacks on his opponents.
Perhaps most infuriating is that, as soon as Chapter 6 concludes, Ehrman is BACK AT IT. The remainder of the book is a much more detailed look at very specific mythicist claims, rather than the general claims he so thoroughly failed to debunk in Chapters 1-5. And once again, Ehrman provides the mythicist argument, which is relatively convincing (or at least thought-provoking) then makes incredibly poor arguments against it. I'm about halfway through Chapter 7 as I write this, and I can barely stand the idea of wading through the second half of the book if it's just a repeat of the embarrassing arguments from the first half. I had hoped he'd move on and into more interesting territory, but it appears that Ehrman wishes to go even deeper in the areas he's already been.
I don't know if I'll be able to make it all the way through the book like this, every session is a struggle not to give up and read something else. I'm writing my review now because I have a hunch that I will soon abandon this book, and I wanted to write my thoughts down while they are fresh in my mind.
I suspect that Ehrman would not care what I have to say about the book. If the first chapter is any indication, his level of disdain for those who lack his qualifications is palpable, and I hold no degrees of any sort in history. I'm just a fan of his work who had high hopes for this book.
It is worth mentioning though, that if Ehrman's book is so bad, that it fails to convince a reader who ALREADY AGREED WITH HIM that he was correct, and in fact made that reader far more sympathetic to the opposing view, I cannot imagine how entirely unconvincing it must be for those who already consider themselves mythicists. If your attempt to convince those who are on your side to stay there sends them running for the opposition, I'd say your attempt is about as monumental a failure as one could conceive.
As I said, I'm a huge fan of Ehrman's, and I look forward to his next book with the same excitement as I have with every other book of his. This book is the oozing pimple on his otherwise unblemished writing career. I cannot think of a single soul I'd recommend this book too, and I hope Ehrman's next brings a return to form for him.
UPDATE: I did wind up finishing the book eventually. The good news is that the book actually does get substantially better. After 2 more god-awful dissections of mythicist claims, Part III of the book begins, which essentially asks "now that we know Jesus existed, what can we know about what he said and what he did". This part of the book is far, far, far more interesting and engaging than the rest of it. It almost seems like Ehrman simply needed to prove Jesus existed to look at this material, but then why devote 2/3rds of a book to get to the real interesting stuff? In fact, why talk about it at all, why not just operate on the premise of "assuming Jesus existed..." or "if Jesus existed, what can we say about him?" I recognize that this answer is that this is a personal mission for Ehrman, but as I've said earlier he does a crummy job with that part.
The actual discussion of what we can be confident Jesus said and did, and how he was an apocalyptic Jew who had and espoused certain supernatural beliefs is actually quite interesting. In fact, it really warrants a book all of its own. In fact, it did! That book is called "Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium" and it is by none other than Bart D. Ehrman.
It's kind of disturbing that the best part of this book was when Ehrman recycled material from a (much better) book he wrote eleven years ago, but I have to acknowledge that it's inclusion does make the book much better by the end....more
"Why Are You Atheists So Angry" is a very well-argued book, but not a particularly well-written one. This is frustrating, because it diminishes the im"Why Are You Atheists So Angry" is a very well-argued book, but not a particularly well-written one. This is frustrating, because it diminishes the impact of Greta Christina's arguments.
Greta is a talented blogger, but too much of the "blogger" style comes through in the book. The tone jumps quickly from dispassionate logic to angry indignation, from professional to conversational. Weird spurts of sarcasm and humor pepper otherwise intellectual paragraphs. Greta also constantly goes on tangents and rants, devoting completely disproportionate amounts of text to certain things deserving of less.
The most irritating thing about the writing is that it's overdramatized and repetitive. Long strings of sentences which repeat every word except one, sentences in paragraphs all alone for impact. This kind of thing doesn't make me think of Richard Dawkins's intellectual tomes, it makes me think of a cranky teenager's myspace page.
Like I said, this is a shame because the actual substance of what Greta has to say is largely excellent. Many, many times during the book I found myself stopping and putting it down just to think through what she said. The book contains lots of new arguments and lots of new angles for existing arguments, it's very thought-provoking and for that reason alone I recommend it. I particularly liked her argument that the "religion as comfort" concept is inherently flaws, as it makes people complacent with social injustice.
Unfortunately, I can only recommend it to nonbelievers. The book is structured so that it would be extremely valuable for believers to read it; half of the chapters start with straw-men quotes from believers to which Greta then responds. I'd love to give my in-laws this book to read sometime for this reason. Sadly, the book contains enough off-topic ranting that it makes me hesitant to do so. Frequenly Greta pulls her very progressive politics into the mix, even when it has nothing to do with religion. As a result, giving the book to a conservative christian would be an assault not only on their religious identity, but their political one, which makes a reader more likely to reject its content.
Overall, the book is thought-provoking and insightful, but suffers from feeling overly padded and casual. It's worth a read for nonbelievers, because it adds lots of tools to ones argumentation toolbox, but aside from that I can't help but hope someone takes the best of this book and puts it into another....more
Scientology is a fucking cult. "Hey Rod," you say, "that's not nice, everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs and we should be tolerant of--" NScientology is a fucking cult. "Hey Rod," you say, "that's not nice, everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs and we should be tolerant of--" No, shut up. Scientology is a fucking cult. What I knew of Scientology I knew from the internet, Tom Cruise, and South Park. It seemed like just a basic dumb religion, but Inside Scientology taught me so much more.
Scientology, it seems, combines the absolute worst aspects of every religion and rolls it up into a single terrible one. Brainwashing? Check. Morality police? Check. Prohibits asking questions and thinking for yourself? Check. Makes you feel guilty about your "sins" so that the religion is the only solution? Check. Actively tries to spread the religion in insidious ways? Check. Takes all your money? Check. Prohibits young members from learning about the religion through any external mechansim? Check. Religion leaders use naive members for personal ends? Check. Denying members proper medical care, resulting in their deaths? Check. Fought to be considered a religion in order to get tax-exempt status, which it uses to increase profits? Check. HAS A BASE WITH BARBED WIRE FENCES FACING INWARD AND MOTION SENSITIVE, ALARMED EXITS TO PREVENT ESCAPE BY MEMBERS?! What in the everloving check!
If Scientology were more popular, more powerful, and more influential, it would be the worst religion in existence. I'm serious. The only thing that makes Scientology remotely acceptable is that it's not that popular, due to it's complete wackiness. How wacky is it? So wacky that even the posterboy, Tom Cruise, upon becoming OT-3 (that's where you learn about the aliens), got super pissed off, asking "What the fuck is this Science Fiction shit!?" before angrily leaving the church and starring in movie roles that the Church of Scientology did not approve of, such as the homosexual vampire Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, self-help guru T.J. Mackey in Magnolia, and Dr. Bill Harford in sexually ambiguous Eyes Wide Shut. Don't worry, not long after this the church leader at the time, David Miscavige, made it a priority to "get Cruise back" and they brought Tom back into the fold, got him to divorce Nicole Kidman, and turned him into Scientology's golden child. So how bad is Scientology? So bad that when they attempted to improve their public image by recruiting universally-beloved celebrities, rather than having their image improve the image of the church, the church instead dragged down the image of the celebrities. Scientology isn't cool, but Tom Cruise is now a joke. The star of Top Gun!
"But Rod," you say, "you're a nonbeliever, is Scientology really that much worse than other religions?" Yes. Yes it is. It's way, way, way worse. Everything that's bad about every religion, Scientology matches, and has a belief set that is, quite frankly, the most ridiculous I've ever heard. "Come on, more ridiculous than a god sending his son to die as a sacrifice of himself to himself to give his own creation for sins he assigned to them before he made them?" you ask? Yes, a billion times more ridiculous than that. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with something crazier-sounding than Scientology's core belief set, and that's only the stuff we know. The only positive thing I can say about Scientology is that they don't seem to be sexually abusing children.
When I started reading this book, I was lukewarm about Scientology. It seemed like a small group of kooks who believe in something dumb. I've revised my opinion after reading it, Scientology is a dangerous cult whose only saving grace is its unpopularity.
Inside Scientology is not actually intended as an attack piece - the author tries to be fair and even-handed, never letting opinion noticeably creep into the text. That said, it goes into excruciating detail, often far too much detail, causing many sections of the book to be quite boring. The overabundance of information paints a pretty clear portrait of Scientology, and it's not pretty.
I now know enough to convince pretty much anyone to hate Scientology. I can tell my anti-authoritarian nonbeliever friends about how the church uses litigation to silence opponents and encourages young Scientologists to snitch on their friends that start to question their faith, which results in punishment for the skeptical. I can tell my right-wing religious in-laws about how they refuse to do any kind of sex education for people who go to school within the church, then force girls to get abortions under threat of excommunication. Tell me values you hold dear, and I'll tell you how Scientology is an assault on them. Honestly, I think the only people who could read this book and not come out the other side loathing Scientology are Scientologists.
Speaking of Scientologists, on the off chance there's a Scientologist reading this review, my guess is that you have a lot to object to. You'll say the book's not accurate, or it doesn't reflect "true" Scientology. Well guess what - you don't get to say that. Why? Because other religions are open - their standard texts are available to anyone who wishes to read them, and the doors of their churches are generally open to all. Scientology is veiled in secrecy, the inner-workings of its organization a complete mystery to the outside world, intentionally so. Scientology's tenets are codified in "tech" that members must pay increasing amounts to read, only some of which have leaked onto the internet. In short, Scientology has made sure that virtually no information about Scientology can make it into my hands, so you don't get to complain if the first and only detailed book on the religion happens to be one that doesn't present Scientology favorably. It's the only source of information on Scientology I have, it's well-researched by Janet Reitman using multiple interviews and testimonies from ex-Scientologists, and it seems consistent with what little I've garnered about Scientology from other sources. For all intents and purposes, it seems safe to assume it is true. If you think otherwise, you're just going to have to refute it.
Inside Scientology is a good, if occasionally tedious read, I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the religion. But if you're looking for a book that will simply make you more able to understand an exotic religion, this isn't the book. Inside Scientology is not a book to broaden your horizons - it will make you actively dislike the faith....more