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A Miscellany 190
Recent Readings

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Just some brief comments on books and articles I have read lately.

The Heavy Stuff

Both these huge books were best sellers, and both are more likely to sit on their various owners' bookshelves looking impressive rather than actually being read cover to cover.

A SECULAR AGE by Charles Taylor. 874 pp. Belknap Press/Harvard University

I'll admit, I have not finished this yet, I'm a little over 3/4 of the way through, and may not get much further. But I'm well past whatever is worthwhile in the book.

Taylor, emeritus professor of philosophy at McGill University, opens with the question of how did we get from a 1500 AD worldview in which questioning the existence of God was unimaginable to today's worldview where God's existence is widely doubted. I think that's a good question. I found Taylor's reply interesting and opinionated. I also found it at times incomprehensible, in part because, even though aimed at a general audience, it is too much like a textbook with many words give narrow academic definitions, different from everyday usage. And then when he started an extended section discussing the link between religion and the state in terms of Durkheimian, paleo-Durkheimian, and neo-Durkheimian - the mind just boggles.

But still, as long as he is addressing the question - how did we get from there to here - it's interesting, even if not convincing. But the latter part of the book turns into an argument that God exists. Science has not refuted God's existence, therefore we should continue to believe. That's where I am now, and why I may not get much further.

Don't waste your money.

THE ROAD TO REALITY: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose. 1,099 pp Vintage

This was published in 2004, but I only recently got around to reading it. The title makes it tempting for anyone with an interest in science, but, in my view, the title does not describe the content. What we really have here is a mathematics course which should give anyone with a good understanding of high school math a sufficient grounding in advanced math to understand the basis of where we are.

It's a fine book, but it demands a lot of you; far more than most readers would be willing to give.

As far as the Laws of the Universe are concerned, I think the book better establishes what we don't know, than what we do know.

The Light Stuff

All fiction. A short story, a novella, and a novel - each of which appeals to my agnostic sensibilities.

THE RELIGION by Tim Willocks. 613 pp. Sarah Chrichton Books

This is historical fiction centered on the Ottoman siege of Malta in 1565. It's a bit of a bodice ripper, a good read. The Religion is what the Knights of Saint John the Baptist refer to themselves as, and they are the objects of the siege, as well as the prime defenders. The hero, an adventurer named Mattias Tannhauser, has lived in both the Ottoman and Christian worlds and moves easily between them. He seems to have no fixed religious views - except to do what is necessary to get by in his current situation. I think he would have made a fine agnostic.

The book deals well with the underlying religious motivations behind the wars between the Ottoman Empire and Catholic Europe. It also deals with the internal struggles in the Catholic Church with Rome intriguing to subjugate semi-independent operations such as the Knights of St. John. Ad we see how truly evil at least some of those involved in the Inquisition were, rationalizing their acts as for the greater good.

Where it really excels is in describing how truly horrifying war of the time was. The brutality of combat of the time and the willingness of men to bear it is incredible.

It's a good read.

Hostages by Anne Perry from Transgressions edited by Ed McBain. 782 pp Forge.

For those who like mystery, suspense, and crime, this collection of 10 novellas is quite good. And cheap; it has been remaindered

However, the second story was the grabber from a religious viewpoint. It is set in Northern Ireland somewhat before the recent peace settlement and it deals with an intransigent Protestant religious leader and his family being taken hostage by an IRA faction. On both sides we see a religion-based inability to compromise leading to violence.

One could quibble and say the IRA was more Marxist motivated than Catholic, but the story is fiction.

Sleepless Years by Steven Uttley from Fantasy & Science Fiction October / November 2008

This short story about someone brought back from the dead as a science experiment (he had willed his body to science, so had no say in the matter) has a quite agnostic sensibility as it deals with him remembering his loss of faith. It's a good read.

If you are not an SF fan, just pick up this issue at the newsstand and turn to the short poem on p173 (December 22, 2012 by Sophie M. White) and give it a quick read. The last line made me smile.

The Useful

While Ben Stein's so-called documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, ( - see Meditation 681) seems to have failed at the box office, we can be fairly certain it will be floating around for years on DVD (and whatever formats follows that) and being played for dutiful creationist church groups. And of course we'll get the message duly parrotted to us by the believers.

Get hold of the September/October issue of Skeptical Inquirer and / or the same period issue of Skeptic (Vol 14, No. 2) Both review the film, and Skeptic has several articles exposing the outright falsehoods behind the claims the film makes of specific individuals being fired because of espousing creationism. Read the articles, then keep the magazines on file so you have the facts on hand should anyone start giving you Ben Stein's baloney.