Upon recommendation from a friend, I read this book by a rather unorthodox Christian Spiritualist by the name of Donald Miller. I couldn’t help but in...moreUpon recommendation from a friend, I read this book by a rather unorthodox Christian Spiritualist by the name of Donald Miller. I couldn’t help but instantly relate to him, sharing my last name and all, although in very few other ways. I was vaguely aware of Miller, but had never read anything of his, previous to this book. The subtitle of the book is ‘Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality’. It seemed to be a hybrid of memoir and theological pep-talk. In the very first chapter he expressed some dissatisfaction with some teachings of the church. Examples of this include objection to referring to God as ‘Father’, because so many fathers abandon their children, and criticism for Sunday schools teaching blind memorization of Scripture and commandments instead of helping children relate to God in a meaningful way. I can superficially support this criticism, but what I don’t understand is how children should be taught to relate to God. The outcome could prove very disappointing if left to the children for experimentation. It could put a damper on the Christian foundation as we understand it (not that I would be opposed, but the priests, pastors and teachers may feel differently). Furthermore, I can’t help but imagine that if each child’s relationship with this version of God, or whatever ambiguous concept some theologians might encourage is instructed, then it cannot truly be said that they discovered that relationship on their own terms, on their own time, in their own way, etc. I appreciated his advocacy of more open ideas and understanding of spirituality, even within Christendom, but I am not (yet?) convinced that the authoritative guise of Christianity could be done away with, while still maintaining the core beliefs.
In the middle of chapter 3 (pg. 31), he confessed that earlier in his life, he was not able to give himself over to Christianity because “it was a religion for the intellectually naïve.” He goes on to say that his belief was something that developed in his subconscious, rather than coming to a conclusion by any deliberate means. This did not satisfy me either. I am obliged to take him at his words, but such a path is not something that I can relate to. I have heard similar, indeed almost identical proclamations from numerous amounts of other former non-believers turned religious. The ‘I didn’t choose God (Jesus), He chose me’ explanation is how I could sum that up. I am not so bold as to accuse anyone who says this of dishonesty. If they really think that, I don’t presume to tell them they are mistaken, albeit I may suggest it in as subtle a way as I can (which may not be nearly subtle enough). The main problem I take with this is the idea that God is choosing people to accept Him, to the exclusion of others. Should I be made to feel like a reject or spiritual failure if I don’t feel it in my heart that this God has placed Himself in it? Surely, there are people who long for it, beg for it, but simply can’t gain that ‘satisfaction’ that so many people claim to have felt. This is an argument that has come up in regular conversation in my life, and I have yet to hear a satisfying answer as to why God would pick people, some much easier than others, to truly accept Him without intellectual inquiry and expect the ones who haven’t to feel inept in these deep matters. I can’t say that Miller feels this way, but he didn’t go into much more depth on this matter, and if he would have, perhaps I wouldn’t feel the need to raise my objection here.
I hate to continue on with criticism now, but in my attempt to follow the book chronologically, I have to raise another point. On the first page of chapter 5 entitled ‘Faith: Penguin Sex’ (sounds promising) Miller was expressing how much he enjoyed sharing his faith with others, especially when one of his friends converts to Christianity. He described the experience of sharing faith as “euphoric… I see in their eyes the truth of the story.” What story that is, I am not precisely sure, but it compelled me to roll my eyes. I have to imagine it had something to do with the truth of God, Jesus, redemption, etc. Why Miller is content with giving this as legitimate testimony is beyond me. These sorts of quaint, mystical, (in my opinion half-assed) explanations are the primary things that bothered me in this book. They are recurring and offer no merit to someone reading the book (such as myself) that doesn’t already share a similar worldview. They became increasingly vexatious to read as the book went on.
There were occasional spots of satire that made his views on God seem much more hip and even playful. He mocked the practice of stoning people to death in the book of Exodus, placing himself as a character in the Bible, a former slave, freed by Moses. His character complained to Moses, or as he called him, ‘Mosey’ that he was better off as a slave back in Egypt. There was obviously a message that followed from it, about being spoiled and selfish and untrue to God (more vagueness) but it was relieving, I must say, that he presented this sense of humor that is all-too-commonly lacking among religionists.
I am going to graze over the part that suggested people that commit atrocities in the name of God, or who simply claim to be Christians were not ‘true’ followers of Jesus. I don’t even like wasting my time refuting this, because it deeply upsets me. Downplaying violent acts that were committed for explicitly religious reasons is something that I simply will not accept. Page 119 provides some support for why he feels this way, but I disagree, one-hundred-percent, unambiguously.
Luckily, I can now discuss a small section of convivial understanding that has nothing to do with the subject of the book. I include this merely to show I do not feel straight antipathy for the man, nor do I hope it would seem that way otherwise. He briefly talked about his selfishness again, but he didn’t evoke any supernatural remedy at this point. He stated that he wanted a girlfriend, but not every day. Perhaps a strange place to find common ground, but I feel the same way. I enjoy the thought of romantic companionship, but I don’t want her to impede my personal studies, my reading time, etc. I agree, there is selfishness, but it’s something that we owe ourselves; alone time, serene isolation that allows us to conjure some of the best ideas we may ever have. This isn’t to say selfishness is a virtue, I wouldn’t say that, nor was that what Miller implied. In fact, he goes on to talk about the necessity of human interaction. This isn’t directly related to that humorous example, of which Miller and I are of one mind, but he described Hell as a place where you are forever isolated. Being alone forever is what he would call Hell. I don’t disagree with him, granting a loose definition of 'Hell' (not even getting into the eternal aspect). This depressing concept of forced isolation for as long as you live (or beyond) doesn’t need anyone dictating it so. I agree that it is rather tragic to imagine. I get much joy from discussing with people, both that agree with me and disagree. Debate is something I thrive on (although I prefer smaller amounts of people at one time). I found this description of Hell to be adequate, if unnecessary to actually call ‘Hell’ as opposed to, say ‘an extremely undesirable way to live’.
He ended chapter 17 entitled ‘Worship: The Mystical Wonder’ with that very chapter title phrased into an actual sentence. “I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.” This chapter is only a few pages long, and it seems to be that it could only be that way because he was light on convincing explanations when it comes to the ‘wonder of God’. It brought up the expected idea of something greater than us had to create us, and that it is beyond our understanding. He doesn’t say that we should stop wondering, in fact he fully advocates wonder, but it’s only wonder for God that makes sense to him. Another thing that perplexes me about this take on things is that if you know you will never understand, why try to understand why you can never understand. There’s a paradox present here. What I take from this is something like this: Eternity can’t last forever. Does a statement like that even warrant the vainly spent mind-capacity to come up with it? If God is eternal, and eternity is something we can never comprehend, then why should we try to understand God? Can an eternal being really have personal relationships with temporal creatures such as us? I am not claiming that it is ridiculous to ponder, but if you are told to be satisfied with not understanding, then is wonder even the right word to describe your thought process thereafter? Another issue I have with this is that Miller almost seemed to be saying that if you don’t believe in God, you have no reason to find wonder in anything. He may be saying that if you have a sense of wonder, you’re worshiping God whether you like it or not, but I wouldn’t find that any more auspicious than the previous possibility.
In conclusion, I didn’t find any specific reason, or feel any specific feeling that changed my mind on theological or Christian matters (not to my surprise). While I enjoyed portions of the book and approved of some criticisms he had of religion, he still just ended up sounding like another person who claims to know what God truly wants, how His mind works and so forth while putting on a facade of humility that he can't understand God. All in all, Miller’s experiences and stories and explanations and conclusions all boil down to things he claims cannot truly be explained, they must be felt, yet he explained them as best he could, I suppose. He could have said that he wrote a book about how pointless it was to write a book about what he was writing about, namely Christian spirituality. His experiences and struggles in many aspects of his life are easy to relate to. They are things that we all deal with; vices, heartbreak, doubt, hopelessness, but there are many different ways to deal with them. I am not saying that Miller claims that his views on Christian Spirituality are the only way to go about things, but he certainly doesn’t provide the possibility of getting through ordeals, or strengthening relationships, or loving one another, or helping those less fortunate without the invocation of God. He wrote this book because these experiences helped him get closer to God and he thinks that perhaps it will help us get closer to God as well. He invites us to join in his euphoric view of the world (thanks for the offer). He honestly wishes for that to be the case, saying so at the end. I could talk at rather great length about this book, which says to me it was worth reading, and considering and there were some interesting perspectives that I always appreciate coming to understand better. However, I did not set it down feeling a desire to pray, or join a congregation of any sort, or seek out a spiritual identity that he seemed to hope some of his readers would realize they are lacking.
A Gothic Western? Really? Pretentious much? What were you Brautigan, one of those writers who said ‘I write so-and-so books, but with a so-and-so twist...moreA Gothic Western? Really? Pretentious much? What were you Brautigan, one of those writers who said ‘I write so-and-so books, but with a so-and-so twist’? I mean, seriously, give us a bre — oh! Hey, so yeah, a gothic western. Spot on. Who knew one could be so apt in labeling their work. My apologies. Well done.
Having A Go at One of Those Superficially Clever, Show-offy-but-in-reality-rather-hokey-and-stilted-and-at-bottom-irrelevent Mash-up Comparative Descriptions That Critics Tend to Enjoy Implementing: Imagine if Cormac McCarthy and Kurt Vonnegut travelled back in time to assassinate Jesse James only to find that Mary Shelley had already travelled forward in time and was using his body for scientific experimentation, and Robert Louis Stevenson was… probably somewhere near… like in the basement, with his chemicals… hearing bits and pieces… eh, forget this. It does have in common some of the comic simplicity of Vonnegut, dreary dialogue involving cowboys, sort of like McCarthy, and indeed a science-gone-wild gothic aspect not entirely unlike Frankenstein, but those are just some things that came to my mind viz. it doesn’t smack of a rip-off at all. It’s easy to read, elegant in its lack of verbose adornment, and it is wonderfully entertaining.
Main Characters and About Them: Cameron counts. Greer fucks. Cameron fucks too though. Cameron and Greer also both kill people. Miss Hawkline fucks. Magic Child fucks. Miss Hawkline and Magic Child also both want to be rid of an evil (or at least highly inconsiderate) entity that dwells beneath their house. Cameron and Greer also both want to kill this entity because they will get paid. But sometimes both Cameron and Greer and both Miss Hawkline and Magic Child would rather fuck or eat than kill the entity. Cameron counts everything; shots fired, hoof clops clopped, silverware. If there are amounts of things, he’ll count them. When he is counting the amount of times someone does something, he always anticipates it to be done 1 more time. He expects to count to infinity, all the time. There is no expectation of a cut-off point for Cameron, and numbers are everything.
The House, What Surrounds it, and What is Contained Within it: (view spoiler)[Multiple chimneys of billowing smoke make the Hawkline house appear as a mini-factory of industrial dread. Frozen ground surrounds it on account of the ‘ice caves’ beneath it. Chemicals-cum-shadow/light-cum-monster inadvertently originated by professor-cum-elephant foot umbrella stand. Seemingly more inconvenient than dangerous, such a creation can cause reality not to fit its definition. In the end, we have confirmation of what we all know already; whiskey solves all problems. (hide spoiler)]
Writing this review is preventing me from getting fucked. I’m going to go get fucked. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
It may be unfair, even mean-spirited of me to review and rate this book, being an atheist who is supremely vexed by all things anti-scien...more[image error]
It may be unfair, even mean-spirited of me to review and rate this book, being an atheist who is supremely vexed by all things anti-science (or misrepresentative of science). I suppose it would be remiss of me not to mention what the authors would call my ‘anti-supernatural bias’ prior to reading this book, but as they themselves seem to enjoy pointing out, being biased doesn’t mean one is wrong. Perhaps I should leave this book’s worth-assessment to those who think Apologetics and Theology are worthwhile pursuits, but oh well…. As far as I am concerned (which is quite far indeed) all arguments for god belong to what is commonly referred to as a ‘god of the gaps’. Here is a brief, hypothetical dialogue to explain my point:
Science: Earth revolves around the sun. Religion: Liar! Blasphemer! You’re grounded. No more critical inquiry for you. Science: no really… Religion: Prove it. Science: (proves it) Religion: Oh, well, ahem, still, someone needs to be responsible for the orbit, regardless of what orbits what. Praise God! Science: Well, with some further research we could- Religion: Shut up! God did it. You wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for God, so anything you explain must still necessarily be accredited to God. I infinitely win. A little cheap? Perhaps, but Turek and Geisler assume the roles of atheists in some hypothetical, equally patronizing dialogue as well, so I suppose it’s fair.
So, onward to the actual review: An ambitious effort at best and flagrantly fallacious at worst, this award-winning apologetics book makes the claim that atheism is the most inferior worldview that can be held by someone. Each chapter relies on the previous chapter for support in furthering their case, thus in my view digging themselves in a deeper hole with each subsequent, droning chapter.
The book begins with a less-than-promising forward by the less-than-inviting David Limbaugh. I won’t waste much space on this pandering fool other than to point out that on the very first page he states “Being prepared will also arm us with the tools to resist certain nagging doubts that we encounter in moments of weakness.” Right off the bat, I am outside the demographic for this book. Doubt is a weakness, huh? Yes, I sure hate those ‘nagging doubts’ always barging in and forcing me to think critically about things. Luckily, that can all be kept at bay by the contents of this book.
There is then a preface assuring us that just because the book has an agenda doesn’t preclude it from being correct in every way. Then we have an introduction (uff-da) in which the authors submit that “the five most consequential questions in life are these: 1.) Origin: Where did we come from? 2.) Identity: Who are we? 3.) Meaning: Why are we here? 4.) Morality: How should we live? 5.) Destiny: Where are we going?” …none of which we are entitled an answer to and only two of which are answered (to some extent). I am told categorically that if there is no God, my life ultimately means nothing and if there is a God, my finite existence on earth will have consequences in eternity. How my mortal self is supposed to relate to any eternal element in me or about me is something I’ve never understood, but I’ll digress for the time being.
Let’s move on: In the interest of saving space, not boring you (if any actually bother to read my humble commentary), and perhaps my personal laziness, I am merely going to hit some points of the book.
So, when we finally get to the first chapter of the book we have an irony of hilarious proportions as our two evolution-denying correspondents tell us that many Americans, like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, can’t handle the truth. After that, chapter 1 fails to tell us anything that most of us don’t already acknowledge; that truth exists. Relativists beware; you are excluded promptly.
In chapter 2, Geisler voyages off into some self-righteous vanity project as he takes on prominent past philosophers like Hume and Kant, not by challenging us in a useful way, but by regurgitating conversations from his student days and classes he has taught. After telling us the story of his heroic act as a student ‘refuting’ Hume’s claim that “something can only be meaningful if it’s empirically verifiable or true by definition”, he feels the need to inform us; “that was it, and I sat down.” You sat down, huh? So what? I’ve sat down after saying things before; you don’t hear me bragging about it. Okay, I’m just complaining about Geisler as a pompous wind-bag now. Let’s get to the substance of what he says. What we have here is a word game in the form of the infamous and instantly tiresome ‘roadrunner tactic’ (look it up). Geisler states that Hume’s claim is neither empirically verifiable, nor is it true by definition, therefore it is self-refuting. We are expected to believe him, unlike his idiot professor, who continued teaching philosophy despite this revelation. There seems to be something missing here, such as any explanation as to why Hume’s claim is prohibited from being empirically verifiable. Besides, if you don’t accept the claim, sir, then why would you use the logic, or lack-thereof, to refute it? One might accuse Geisler, if they would dare, of being logically inconsistent; at least as much as Hume.
Now, I have to admit, I will soon grow quite angry because in the next several chapters, this book derails so hard and so far that a route back is entirely out of sight, and there is so much devastation in its wake that it saddens me even to have to comment. It is a complete mess of bending scientific studies to support their claims, quoting out of context, and concluding without a modicum of true understanding in the scientific fields. They pilfer from science and degrade it. We are supplied with a convenient acronym; S.U.R.G.E., which attempts to confirm the as-far-as-I-knew-defunct cosmological argument. I will not take this space to discuss each letter of the acronym. The Law of Causality is their attempt at hitting this cosmological argument home by declaring that everything that came to be had a cause. As one might have guessed, God is exempt from this law because He necessarily exists, He is eternal, unlike the universe (which is everything that exists). Go ahead and scientifically verify this insuperable illogic. So, after all those attempts at trying to bring science to their side, it is abandoned when it comes to anything that could resemble actual evidence for God as an existing entity. It’s awfully convenient for their argument, but I suppose that could be one of God’s little ‘wink-winks’ to the theists.
Next we have the teleological argument and the anthropic principle (more boring and archaic, still). They even go so far back as to invoke William Paley and his watchmaker argument. The universe and watches have very little to do with each other, creation-wise. Humans invented watches. Why would we ever use a human invention to make a case for what God or natural forces created? Fine-tuning is another tired argument that is used, claiming that the universe is tweaked just so, which of course follows that earth and humans were meant to be created. Not only does this ignore that much of the universe is empty nothingness, but that from a cosmic perspective, our planet is nothing if not another rock which eventually allowed for life to flourish, and will eventually revert back to not being able to support life before ultimately being engulfed by the sun. I can admit that this does not necessarily mean there is no design, but it would be such a capricious one that it would render God utterly bereft of any relevance to our lives as temporal creatures. Life on planet earth does not prove anything, one way or the other, but they assert it as unassailable proof of a conscious designer. They would have us believe that improbability means impossibility (and that impossibility means possibility, with God). The science here just isn’t settling with me.
Random line from the book: “…the Multiple Universe Theory is so broad that any event can be explained away by it.” My response: Sounds awfully similar to another explanation I could name. Also, the Multiple Universe theory is certainly not verified, but that’s what scientists do; they think up theories. This is a conceivable, viable scientific theory which was not an attempt to exclude God but presented as a natural possibility for life-permitting conditions. Like the God explanation, it is difficult or impossible to falsify, but it is a theory, and at the very least, equally as plausible as a supernatural deity.
Now I’ll get to some of the bending-of-science-to-support-their-claims that I mentioned. Richard Dawkins (I’m sure I needn’t describe who he is) is said to have ‘admitted’ that ‘messages’ found in cells, even “just the cell nucleus of a tiny amoeba has as much information in its DNA as 1,000 complete sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica.” First off, I don’t think Dawkins ‘admitted’ anything. Scientists don’t ‘admit’ things (as scientists); they state things that are concluded from the evidence. Sophistry is at hand when the authors misconstrue definitions of ‘messages’ and ‘information’ in a scientific, biological sense with a note written by a human being. The Encyclopedia Britannica analogy is convenient, but even I know, in my limited scientific understanding, that genetic information has no real relevance to words written on a page. Humans invented the alphabet, do we agree on that? Good. So, the letters used in DNA: A, T, C, and G are used for our convenience. It does not follow that we can make claims of improbability with an analogy that was used to make a very different point. They asininely ask why, if the message “’Drink Coke’ requires an intelligent being, then why doesn’t 1,000 encyclopedias long require one?” To which I respond: because you have no idea just what nature is capable of, clearly. And to answer the question with a question, if God is so far beyond us, who are we to compare human messages like ‘Drink Coke’ with ‘divine messages’ like, ostensibly, DNA?
A quick fit of laziness: Read page 118 and tell me if the cell is more like The Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore.
Worst, most reprehensible and anti-scientific line in the book: Uttered not by either of the authors, but by William Dembki, quoted with reverence: “When does determination (to find a natural cause) become pigheadedness?... How long are we to continue a search before we have the right to give up the search and declare not only that continuing the search is vain but also that the very object of the search is nonexistent?” I will not insult by giving reason for why this is so vile. If you disagree, let’s discuss.
On to Morality: I lament that they stoop so low as to equate Darwinian evolution with Nazism, but I am not in the least bit surprised. In chapter 7, we have two men jumping out of biological science and claiming authority in psychology and cognitive science as they declare that “even serial killers know murder is wrong—they just may not feel remorse.” They know it “in their hearts”. May I inject some nuance, nay, ask some basic questions that are being ignored? What is psychosis? Are psychos making a deliberate decision to kill, knowing full well that it is wrong? Is every human act of violence a matter of free will? What about brain tumors that can radically alter one’s personality and cause lapses in cognitive decision-making processes? Are these all excuses? This stuff is not to be taken lightly. I would caution careful treading here. Do we have values and ethics? Yes, I believe we do. Is there a divine standard? No, I do not believe there is. Human values are just that, human values. Our values arose and will die with our species. Morality doesn’t float around and enter us at birth (or conception?) like absorptive powers from ‘Highlander’. We are brought up on standards of social behavior and taught exceptions to those standards when it is called for. Objective, divine mandates and relativism needn’t be the only two options. What about human solidarity and empathy for our fellow primates? Why, I ask, is this not enough? I am not making a case for murder, but for understanding. I hope I am understood. I am told by the authors that I, as an atheist, am not allowed to say that murder, rape, genocide or any other act of heinousness and human destruction is really wrong. Why? I can easily say it. Murder, et al is wrong. It is really wrong. There, I said it. That comes from my human standard of ethics, which is commonly, but not entirely, recognized by my fellow homo-sapiens. Why should we have to consult (or accept) a divine or cosmic perspective to declare something ethical, or unethical. This is very hot-button, and I will leave it alone now, but there is a reason that ethics is studied and discussed, not perceived as being handed down from on high. ‘Objective morality’ as Christians define it may very well not exist, but that doesn’t mean that ethical standards do not, or cannot.
Very quickly: The last part I will briefly discuss is on miracles. (I will say now, this takes us approximately half-way through the book; the last half deals with Biblical studies which I know little about, and would recommend Bart Ehrman, or Robert M. Price for the other side on those issues). A singularity, or a rare event and a miracle are mutually exclusive things, are they not? Furthermore, what is an act of God? Are all acts of God miracles? If so, is everything a miracle? If that is so, what is so spectacular about a miracle if everything that has ever happened qualifies as one? Let’s look at this example (which could pass for satire if an atheist had written it): “The fog at Normandy was providential because it helped conceal the Allied attack against the evil Nazi regime. It wasn’t a miracle, because it could be explained by natural laws, but God may have been behind it. By contrast, a miracle would require something like bullets bouncing off the chests of our young men as they assaulted the beach.” Water-tight, isn’t it? So, the very fact that miracles don’t occur often (albeit I still don’t know what the difference between a miracle and a providential act is) is evidence in support of their being possible, er, certain? I don’t know. Fog isn’t a miracle, but God did ‘create’ fog. So, originally, it was a miracle, but now that it’s natural, wait…when did it become natural? Okay, so, God used fog, which He created, but he used it in a non-miraculous way, because fog could exist without God…no, that’s not it. God created nature, and fog is part of nature, so His using nature isn’t a miracle because…um…He’s God and nature is not miraculous because after God created it, it was just nature, so it wasn’t supernatural… except that it came about by supernatural means, so… was nature impossible before God? So, nature itself is a miracle, but anything it does, isn’t miraculous, because it is now possible, unlike before it existed… I must say, I am glad I don’t have to defend miracles. I’m tired. Let’s get a move on.
In summation and conclusion: I suppose the most positive thing I can say about this book is that it inspired me (for lack of a better term) to further research matters that I couldn’t defend on the spot (primarily w/r/t biblical studies). I also suppose that it could be easy for a crisis-of-faith-experiencer who is desperate to cling to their beliefs may be held back from the brink of atheism by this book.
There is my faint praise; now for my rehashed, condensed lambasting. These two, Geisler and Turek (the latter of whom possesses a doctorate in apologetics from the former’s Southern Evangelical Seminary; how serendipitous that they should pair up) begin with the age-old and widely disputed cosmological, teleological and anthropic arguments in support of theism. So, atheism is proved to be absurd within the first few chapters, allowing them to move on to absolute morality and miracle claims; in particular those in the Bible and the necessity of a single, omnipotent, omniscient and eternal being. Here we have pantheism and polytheism easily being ruled out. Finally (and I do mean finally!) and for almost the last half of the book, using bizarre and unprecedented argumentation, they attempt to establish not only the reliability of the New Testament and the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection, but absolute Biblical inerrancy! Needless to say, this cuts off those lingering monotheistic prospects, Judaism and Islam.
Anyway, I think what bothered me most about this book wasn’t the pilfering of science to support their premature-at-best conclusions; or even the specious philosophical and historical acrobatics, but the gall and the hubris it takes to speak so authoritatively not only on biblical scholarship but in various fields of science and study such as biology, paleontology, astronomy, cosmology, chemistry, forensics, neuroscience, psychology and other mutually exclusive areas of expertise. Did these two men truly believe that they demolished the theory of evolution by natural selection and explained away every significant scientific discovery in such a collection of self-righteous ramblings? Why are all of these areas of science which require a lifetime of dedication to research and experimentation to understand so easily covered by these two fellows? Oh right, because they have degrees in Apologetics from explicitly Christian schools with explicitly Christian agendas. How silly of me to call into question their credentials and collective scientific merit. I would label this book as casuistic, which it is to a degree, but I would rather use a word that doesn’t make them seem so clever; so in a most appropriate fashion, this book was, in a word, goofy. (less)
Death hath wrought a pernicious dent in the erudite and intellectual world; Hitchens will not be one to be soon forgotten, nor ever replaced (but emul...moreDeath hath wrought a pernicious dent in the erudite and intellectual world; Hitchens will not be one to be soon forgotten, nor ever replaced (but emulated, definitely). Let me stop you before you roll your eyes. Yes, I am providing my belated, unasked-for, and pedantic tribute to the late Hitch, but this is as appropriate of a forum as any to do so, right? Indeed, I read this magnificent little collection of letters of advice written to no one in particular (but everyone) in modest and solemn remembrance.
I listen to Hitchens’ lectures and debates as if they were my favorite records. Instead of singing along to the Bad Romances and the Mmmbopies, or whatever you kids are listening to nowadays, I am obdurately testifying along:
“…what matters most… the pursuit of liberty, freedom. And that these things are incompatible, completely incompatible, with the worship of an unalterable celestial dictator; someone who can watch you while you sleep and convict you of thought crime, and whose rule cannot be challenged.”
“It’s not moral to lie to children. It’s not moral to lie to ignorant, uneducated people and tell them that if they only believe nonsense, they can be saved.”
“Bear in mind that you are only dust, as the Christian book says, or you are only fashioned from a clot of blood, as the Quran says; bear in mind that you were convicted and found guilty, before you were conceived, of crimes in which you couldn’t possibly have been involved, and you have all the burden of proof in your own defense, and you’ve been found guilty. But… to make up for that rather horrible indictment, you can be reassured that the entire cosmos is designed with you in mind. False consolation. And that he has a plan for you, on the condition that you agree to be a serf. Forever.“
I imitate these and many other lines in my best terrible British accent with as much seemingly effortless acumen as I can muster for an audience of my two dogs (both of whom are now atheists and contrarians as well). However, this is not strictly an anti-religious polemic like his acerbic, if slightly inferior god is Not Great, but a multifaceted deconstruction of conventional wisdom and reverence. There are fringe views that deserve to be marginalized, and then there are dissenting views which need to be heeded, or at least considered. Nothing Hitchens says can be shrugged off, and if one tries, they will end up looking even dumber than they did when they became recipients of his critical wit in the first place. Happily, the intellectual public mostly embraced this public intellectual, and realized his worth in a miscellany of areas. As much as I love his railings against religion (around which most of his debates are centered), it is too bad that some people think that was the sole domain of his brilliance (or according to his detractors, his calumny/misguidedness). His reflections on literature (specific pieces, or in general), history, travels, and encounters, are absolute treasures. One should envy the experiences of this man; well, most experiences.
Among the things to admire in him is his lack of hypocrisy. One cannot suggest that he ‘dishes it out but can’t take it’. As he states in the preface, “I attack and criticize people myself; I have no right to expect lenience in return.” He prepares for, and anticipates attacks on himself; and throughout his career (and life), he has addressed them head-on. The day of his death, I heard more about his being known for his assailment of Mother Teresa than anything else in his distinguished career from the major cable news networks. Luckily, the likes of Joe Scarborough and Sean Hannity don’t get to determine the legacy of this man; at least not for anyone who knew him, or followed his work.
Format: Mr. X, the student, (i.e. us), is allowed the privilege of absorbing all the knowledge and nuance that only Hitch could articulate to this effect. How happy I am that these letters were not exclusive to his students (but how sad am I that I was not among them). Several brief correspondences with a hypothetical, representative student, whose responses are assumed, or left out, advise on what it is to be a contrarian. It is not a matter of being the stand-out dissenter, but the nuanced thinker. (At least that’s what I gathered). Don’t accept anything because someone tells you it is so. Take advantage of your faculties and seek the truth out for yourself.
The Advice (In Conjunction With My Own): Consensus isn’t always trustworthy. Appealing to experts has its values, I feel, and I don’t think Hitchens disagrees with that insofar as dispassionate research reveals the evidence, but in matters of, say, policy, and more pertinent to this third letter, idolatry, the arguments from authority and consensus are not sufficient (nor are they particularly helpful). Disputations are an essential part of crawling toward truth, but let us not get caught up in tautology. It does no good to say either something is true or it is not true. Both of those possibilities are true, and each party in a disagreement can infer as much. Not everything is up for debate, however, as observational evidence cannot be reasonably misconstrued as falsehood, unless we disagree on what observation and evidence are. And around we go.
More to the point at hand is the inauspicious concept of Nirvana; sheer nothingness, or mindless ‘bliss’, which renders discovery and thought useless, or at the very least unnecessary. We shouldn’t, I don’t think, desire suspension, or termination of the intellect, regardless of the ease it may bring us. “And the pleasures and rewards of the intellect are inseparable from the angst, uncertainty, conflict and even despair”. This shouldn’t come off as an anti-existential way of thinking, I don’t think. Moss can be existential in practice. Rocks may very well be experiencing Nirvana. I’ll keep my intellect as long as I am able to (in the service of existential thought, of course). Thinking may cause discomfort, or unease, even unhappiness but that is no excuse to eschew it in favor of becoming a breathing inanimate object.
The evasion of verbal conflict is a silly thing. I thought trying to solve problems with words was a good thing, but now even that makes the tender-hearted cry and plead for peace and compromise. My own bit of advice would be: do not ever agree to disagree. Always state your case if you have one and if you are serious about it. When one engages in combative dialogue (I say combative because vehemence in debate is no vice either) it is important to know exactly whom with one is engaging. Go find a sparring partner. Go on! Play devil’s advocate if you’d like, or just rant and rave with a like-minded cohort.
Wasn’t that refreshing? If not, tell me why I am wrong in thinking that argumentation is a common good.
Nuance or Obfuscation? Some Improvised Examples: -He burned a Quran, what did he expect? He knew there would be violent reaction and he did it anyway. This implicates him in the subsequent riots and murders. He should be more sensitive and show more respect to the sacredness of people’s beliefs.
-I’m not anti-gay, I’m pro-family.
-Providing abortion services is akin to murder. I sympathize with victims of rape, but we shouldn’t punish an innocent unborn child for the actions of their father (said actions being conception of the child through non-consensual intercourse). We already have one victim (of rape). Let’s not add another victim (of in utero murder).
When such stances are being taken, it may be an apt time to whip out Occam’s Razor and do some slicing-and-dicing in the name of common sense. Force them to say what they really mean, and deflate false gradations with the art of “simple… elementary principles”.
Out of Context and Incorrect Citation: Like Karl Marx’s famous Religion is the opium of the people statement (often assumed to have appeared in his Communist Manifesto, when it really appears in A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right), Hitchens’ Antitheism remarks are very poorly understood and unjustly used to discredit him as a credible critic of religion. The word antitheism smacks of a shaking-ones-fist-at-the-sky quality and Hitchens’ detractors are quick to point this out. The problem is that, much different than rebellion for its own sake, Hitchens backs it all up with historical (and anecdotal) proof. Seek out and criticize each example on its own terms, sure, but don’t bring up the old dross of ‘he is just angry at God…’ Admittedly, you’d think a statement like ‘I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches , and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful’ to be contained in a more histrionically titled book, like ‘god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’, but, like those who would talk about Marx’s opium quote as if it were some kind of Communist slogan, we can confront those who talk about Hitchens’ antitheist quote as if it were a way to ride on the coattails of other recent popular critics of religion, because it was written years before, and his later book on the subject was an extrapolation of this point (in that respect, I must say, it is not much like Marx’s quote).
Self-criticism: I am told that my neutral face is a pissed-off face. I often appear uninterested (often enough, I am), in what other people are saying to me, or I am insufferable and condescending. So, like Hitchens, whose face apparently forms an unintended sneer, I don’t fit the old description of a gentleman: one who is never rude except on purpose. So be it. But when I am talking, especially to someone who may very well know more than me about any given subject, I go over each sentence that may escape my lips, in my head (this also depends on my blood-alcohol level). I have been proven wrong before, and I have changed my mind about things of which I have not been proven wrong. There is no shame in this, and nobody needs me to reassure them of that. What is shameful though, is holding a minority viewpoint and conceding to your detractors on that basis. In this area, I am not as confident as the man who wrote “Have I ever thought I might be wrong? Yes, sometimes and briefly”, but I hope I am wrong in thinking I will never be.
Anticipated, if Unlikely, Outside Criticism: “This isn’t a review. You quote Hitchens too much. If I wanted to read Hitchens quotes, I’d buy a book of Hitchens’ quotes”, to which I respond, as Hitchens says, “You… noticed that I make liberal use of extracts and quotations, not just to show off my reading but also to enlighten my text and make use of those who can express my thoughts better than I am able to.”
Bonus For Those Who Have Made it This Far: Is it not time (in fact, well past time) to dispel of any notions of race or ethnicity between humans? The discoveries of Darwin, Crick, and many successors since, have allowed, nay, required, us to view every human as a member of only one giant race. Race is the most arbitrary way of dividing humans that is still in such common practice. Perhaps all the hip, young people are even past the need to rationalize racism away; if so, bring it up to your brother-in-law in Arkansas, to shut him up. I will not be able to say this any better so, again, in his own words:
“The ability to discriminate is a precious faculty; by judging all members of one ‘race’ to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.”
Let this be a voice in the back of your head whenever you, or someone else, describes someone in terms of ‘racial identity’, or when ‘identity politics’ is brought up.
I Now Leave You With This:
“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect them to live for you.”
I am not sure if I would ever wholly embrace any ‘words to live by’, but if I did, the words above wouldn’t be a poor choice. I am saddened only in that there can be no more contributions to the world from the pen of the man who wrote them. Methinks it is time to pour myself some Johnnie Walker Black (neat) in his dignified honor (not to be construed as worship).