Monday, 27 December 2010

Atheism, even The New Atheism, is NOT a Religion.

Regarding the claim that fanatical atheism is a religion, that's just bad usage of english/abuse of english. Religion requires more than fanaticism; they're not synonyms.... Religion also requires a belief in a superior non-physical power (God/Karma/Tao), which is attributed with meting out cosmic justice, creating the cosmos, intervening in the cosmos, plus the having of rituals and sacraments, sacred texts, places of common worship, priests, a mythos, unquestioning faith. Using the word "Religion" to describe, for example, sports fanaticism, is really just a _metaphor_. Taking the meaning of religion seriously in attributing religiosity to sports fanaticism is as silly as taking it seriously when you say that "such and such politician is a snake". We know perfectly well that politicians are not literally _squamata_ even though they share many characteristics in common (deceptiveness, soulless eyes, etc). _All_ the required characterstics have to be present. So, atheism has in common with religion only fanaticism - and that is true only of Dawkins' New Atheism; it's not true of say, David Hume. Atheism, even the New Atheism, does not have a belief in a superior power, nor any sacraments, sacred texts, places of common worship, mythos, faith, etc. A priest is someone who promulgates the practices and mythos of a religion; so, since Atheism has none of those, Dawkins doesn't count as a priest. He's merely an advocate of the scientific method, or at best a fanatic about the scientific method. So let's not abuse English like the Baptists do, please.

Most importantly, there's nothing in atheism that requires faith; its precise point is that it requires you to take NOTHING on faith. This ridiculous claim - that atheism is a faith - is made by the devout in their ignorant discussions of atheism, and it completely misunderstands the point. They think that being excited about a point of view constitutes a religion, because in their dim minds, there's nothing required more than being excited and clapping ones hands.

I realise that simpletons that follow the world's religions do tend to take everything literally, and I am sure they also literally believe that Jesus existed, Santa exists, toothfairies exist, etc., but you know, not everyone takes everything literally. So please stop saying that atheism is a religion: it's not. It lacks sufficient properties to be a religion. 

It seems to me that the argument that "atheism is also a religion" is a postmodernist or sociologist argument. It argues that the New Atheism is a religion because it functions like a religion because it:

a) has favoured texts, such as Origin of Species and The God Delusion (Bible)
b) has chief advocates, such as Dawkins, Harris et al (Pope)
c) brings people together with a common belief and purpose (Church)
d) attacks opposing beliefs (Persecutes)

That's all very well, but even then, the New Atheism is a closer analogue with political movements. For all that, you may as well claim that Communism is a religion or the French Revolution is a religion, because all the above are true of Communism and the French Revolution.

Let's not muck with English. New Atheism just isn't a religion. It's a sociological movement, like suffragettism, the hippie movement, communism, fascism, democracy, egalitarianism, etc etc.

What we're really witnessing with the New Atheism is a backlash against the final abuses of religion. We're in the throes of a new Reformation. Just as the Islamic world has gone thru a Reformation and split into Sunni/Shiite, like the West split Catholic/Protestant, we're now entering the new phase where the conflict is Belief/Nonbelief. And if Marx is right, a new result of the competition between antithesis and thesis, will be a new synthesis.

What that new synthesis will be, who knows? Maybe esoterica? Maybe pantheism?

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The probability that an omnipresent being would select Jesus

I find it impossible to believe that 4.5 Billion years of existence are supposed to have culminated in a so-called perfect person who was nothing more than an itinerant trouble-maker, and a merely mediocre philosopher, having nothing significant to add to our existing Greek body of wisdom. I find it much harder to believe that such a person was significant, than the idea that humanity is a flash in a very large pan.

What I am saying is that I find it impossible to believe that this whole grand show of millions of years and millions of galaxies and the vast expanse of space is all part of some grand plan to produce one ignorant Israeli itinerant teacher who had nothing interesting to say. It's more bizarre than claiming that the purpose of the ocean is to harbour a particular rowing-boat in Mozambique; a vast expanse full of interesting things just to keep one particularly uninteresting vessel in a particularly uninteresting country.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Classic Book Reviews episode 1

Hi all

Sorry for the delay, was otherwise preoccupied by the birth of my son, Thomas. Named for doubting Thomas, the first recorded empiricist, who had to touch to believe.

So, here's the first batch of classic book reviews. Merry Yuletide, all hail Odin!

The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle.
A cute story, probably the inspiration for Jurassic Park. A little bit better suited for young teenagers to read than adults, but nicely-written. My only criticisms are: the story line is a bit linear, the romance at the beginning of the novel is almost irrelevant - but I don't want to spoil the story. It also goes on a bit about the initial traipsing through the jungle thing. Obviously, like all old novels, there are some racist parts. Lastly, some factual details are wrong, in particular, the description of the iguanadon. But that's because Doyle was using the best information available to him at the time, and that information, even in the scientific circles, was wrong.
Recommendation: Read it. It's cute. But I am biased. Anything with dinosaurs is good. A bit like anything with Nazis. So obviously, the best story ever would involve dinosaurs AND Nazis. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Land that Time Forgot, attempts something of the sort. See below.

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.
A bit boring. The first large portion of the book consists of him berating himself and having misadventures in random places over a period of years. When he eventually gets stranded on the island, it takes a few hundred pages before anything interesting happens; most of it is documentation on how he recreates the artefacts of western civilisation. Plus there are lots of innaccuracies about the native flora and fauna of the Caribbean. Then, once he finally leaves the island, there's a peculiar section, also quite extensive, of various adventures around Europe. Quite aimless, and not at all necessary for the story. It struck me as if the author had a bunch of ideas of what would count as good adventure material, and decided to cram it all into one book even if the stories had nothing to do with each other. The whole book could have been condensed to perhaps 100 pages. Apparently this is the first true novel written in English, so we have to forgive him.
Recommendation: See if you can find a movie version of it, or a condensed version. It's rather tedious going, though the part when the "savages" arrive is quite well-written and creates some suspense. Consider reading it.

The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.
Boring. The first half consists of him going back to his island, which had been populated by mutineers etc., to see how it was prospering. The second half consists of him travelling around Asia and being mistaken for a pirate. The whole book could have been condensed to perhaps 100 pages.
Recommendation: Don't bother reading it.

A Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.
Frightfully pretensious and Victorian, with a very linear storyline. I didn't see the point of any of the characters in the story over and above the artist Basil, Gray, Lord Wotton (Gray's corruptor), and Gray's first love. Especially the various aristocratic ladies. They played no role at all, apart from generating pretensious Victorian banter for Wotton to contradict. Also, Gray's descent into debauchery is depicted as a love for finery; tapestries, jewelry, etc etc. Nothing remotely close to what we'd think of as debauched. In that way, the novel was disappointing. No gratuitous orgies, nothing. Most of the story consists of nothing happening. The key events are glossed over or reported after the fact, and not gone into in any detail. The most detail consists of the boring Victorian exchanges between various ladies and the protagonists. The only vaguely interesting thing about the story is that the protagonist, Gray, is an antihero. I liked Wotton better. Gray is very dull and neurotic. The much-vaunted gay allusions didn't appear except right in the beginning of the novel, and they're all very coy. The best part about it is that it is written almost poetically; the use of English is sublime. I also quite enjoyed Wotton's philosophical hedonism.
Recommendation: Don't bother. It's short enough, if you want to bother, but I'd say the 2010 movie is vastly, vastly superior.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Cute. Worth reading. The action is almost continuous, there's very little unnecessary preamble and postamble, justice is served, there's a clear protagonist and antagonist, there's suspense and intrigue, the story is told from different people's points of view and thus is not entirely linear, as most old novels are. The only complaints I have is that I don't think pine trees are native to the Caribbean, and I really don't see the point to Ben Gunn; he could have been removed from the story altogether with no effect on the storyline at all.
Recommendation: Read it.

The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann Wyss.
Disappointing and long-winded. The first two-thirds of the book are awfully boring. They consist of: The family is shipwrecked. They pray. They take lots of useful stuff from the ship, thereby saving them the hassle that Robinson Crusoe had of having to re-make it all by hand. They pray. They kill lots of animals, often for no reason at all. They pray. They discuss the scientific interest of various animals and plants that they'd killed and eaten, and how to use trigonometry to make a tree house, etc. They pray. They plant seeds and saplings from the ship. They pray. They make five or so different houses. They pray. They mooch around the island and find lots of animals that simply do not exist on South Sea islands. There are no Jackals, buffalo, bears, buck, onagers, etc., on South Sea islands. In fact, the only animal they may have got right was a crab. They shoot all of them anyway. They pray. They make references to Robinson Crusoe (yes, the title resemblance is not a coincidence), and to Captain Cook. Finally, at about 2/3 through, something happens, not much, but at least it's something. I guess this is the point at which Wyss's son took over the writing because his father had bored himself to death. (It was partly written by Wyss, and partly by his son).
Recommendation: Don't bother.

War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells.
If you've seen the 1950s movie, or Spielberg's remake, you'll be pleased to read this, because it's very similar to the movie interpretations. Except it's set in Victorian England, which makes it quite a bit more interesting. I think that considering how little people knew of other planets, space alien possibilities, etc., at the time, this is a pretty impressive piece of work. The storyline is not entirely linear, either; it's told from two different peoples' points of view. My criticisms are: the aliens are a little bit less plausible than say, Spielberg's interpretation, and the technology of the Martians does sound slightly like Victorian technology; one can see the extent and limitations of the imagination of the author - e.g. that the space ships are cylinders with screw-off tops, like a metal spaghetti jar. Then, although Wells does tell part of the story from the point of view of the protagonist's brother, he never meets his brother to talk to him. But all the other details, like the mad guy in the house, the red plants, the baskets carrying humans, etc., are there. Spielberg's version is actually closer to the original than the 1950s version.
Recommendation: Read it. It's passably modern, apart from a few language oddities.

The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells.
A bit odd. If you imagine Planet of the Apes combined with some weird kind of Smurfland, that will give you an idea. He goes forward into time, and the rest of the story is his narration of what he saw in the future. His peculiar view of a possible future is rather disappointingly uninteresting; just odd and substantially shorter than War of the Worlds. It seems to me as if this novel is merely an excuse to complain about Britain's class system; he envisages it as resulting in future speciation of the classes.
Recommendation: Don't bother. It's just odd. Rather go watch Planet of the Apes (the new one). It's more compelling, but otherwise pretty much the same story.

The Island of Dr Moreau, by H. G. Wells.
Pretty good - better than I expected. It's basically about an island inhabited by a mad scientist who tries to create humans with animal traits, (or vice versa). It actually borders on a horror story. If you like animals, you'll probably find it IS a horror story. At any rate, it seems as if it is partly a commentary on the inherent animal nature of man, and funnily enough, it compares a priest's sermon to the inane babbling of an ape. I think it would probably make quite a good movie.
Recommendation: Read it. But only if you can tolerate animal cruelty. If you're very worried, let it be known that justice is served.

20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne.
A submarine adventure with a little dig at the British Empire, written, of course, by a Frenchman. My criticisms: obviously, the Antarctic hadn't been explored at this time, so his description, whilst plausible at the time, is wrong on a number of counts, particularly that there's ocean near the pole. He also misclassifies seals as cetacea. He also goes into long lists of fish that they catch, etc., etc., which gets a bit dull. Other than that, an entertaining read. Verne could have trimmed a few of the random travels around the ocean, and I found the ending a bit baffling - why Aronnax's companions didn't tell him how they survived. But one of the best "classic" novels I've read so far.
Recommendation: Read it.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne.
A subterranean adventure in which the explorers try to get to the centre of the earth, on the belief that it is not unbearably hot there. My criticisms: Well, it's false. We know now that the centre is unbearably hot, and that the habitable part of the underground realm does not extend far below the surface of the earth. But the novel has some good parts and some suspense, with very little repetition or boring lists of types of rock, which I was expecting. The chief criticism is that it features a giant humanoid, which we have no evidence for, and some indications that fossilisation of ancient forms had not taken place, because they had survived. If you've seen the recent Brendan Fraser movie of the same title, it's very very similar to that, but obviously a bit slower, and the characters are all adult men. The movie is obviously a bit sillier though (with blue birds and so on).
Recommendation: Read it. If you're too lazy, watch the movie, it's close enough and faster-paced.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker.
Excellent. A bit long, and true to all the novels prior to the 20th century that I've read thus far, everything is told from the first-person perspective using the device of peoples' diary entries. Renfield is particularly disgusting; I giggled several times because of his antics. If you've seen the movie with Winona Ryder, it's pretty close to that; the main difference is there's nothing romantic about Stoker's Dracula; he is just a monster. There's a slight reference to a past love early on, but no dramatic retelling of a lost love. Another of the main differences is that there are multiple lairs and multiple crates of earth, and they're destroyed with a holy wafer only, not burning. Apart from that, the movie version is very close to the book version. So far, this is the best pre-20th-century novel I've read.
Recommendation: Read it. If you're too lazy, watch the movie, it's close enough and faster-paced.

The Land that Time Forgot, by E. R. Burroughs.
I saw a movie version of the first one-third of this series of stories in the 1970s, and remembered fondly the scene of a submarine surfacing in a primeval river, to encounter dinosaurs. So when I started reading this and saw where it was going, I was pleased to read on, hoping that my memory would be jogged into a glorious recollection of a great adventure. However, though it started out very good, it gradually became sillier and sillier. The things I didn't like about it are its bizarre model of the theory of evolution, and all the various primitive tribes of men, of which the Wieroo were the daftest. If he'd stuck to the basic elements and not gone on an acid trip with a science textbook, it would have been better. The book I read is divided into three parts, each actually being a separate book in itself, each following the adventures of a different protagonist in the same land, and ultimately, all three protagonists coming together in the last book. There are some racist parts, so be warned.
Recommendation: Consider reading it. It gets daffier as it goes along but it's overall more good than bad. Above, regarding Conan Doyle's Lost World, I said that the best story would be one with dinosaurs and Nazis. Burroughs tried to do something like this, but messed it up with funny tribes and silly creatures. So as to not spoil it, I'll not say more.

The Lair of the White Worm, by Bram Stoker.
This is the most modern of the classic novels that I have thus far read. It is told in the third person, rather than in the traditional first-person diary-entry form. It is also told from the perspective of many different people. The pace is quite good and the story quite creepy. The horror only comes towards the end, however; for the most part, the events are just bizarre. It was written in the very early part of the 20th century - 1912 if I recall correctly - so it's still very Victorian in its attitudes. The most unpleasant aspect of it is that it is very racist; there's a black character who is constantly described and addressed in offensive terms. Nevertheless, it is a good story. My criticisms of it from a factual point of view: not many. Obviously, it has a mythical creature in it, but apart from that, the factual data is pretty correct. As for the literary style and the book structure, I found it hurried in odd parts that need not have been hurried, e.g. the wedding, which was covered in about a paragraph. There were many loose ends, however. For example, no explanation was offered for the flocks of birds, and their relevance to the snakes. Mesmer's chest seemed irrelevant, though large portions of the book were devoted to its mysteries. The heir to the castle estate is described in very evil terms, and engages in weird hypnosis battles with commoners, for no apparent reason. The two sisters that he victimises seem to have magic powers, but Stoker never explains this or why there are these ancillary hypnosis battles. He seems to be a red herring of a character; almost as if Stoker is trying to make us suspicious of him. There are other loose ends, but I'll leave it at that.
Recommendation: Read. It is very good, apart from the racism.

Nineteen Eighty Four, by George Orwell.
Horrific. The picture it paints of a socialist/fascist future is so unbelievably grey and bleak. I think what is so appalling about it is not the torture scenes, but the complete hopelessness that pervades it. I think we're accustomed to stories in which good triumphs over evil. Orwell does not give us even a hope of this. My feeling after reading it was an increased and utter loathing for governments.
Recommendation: Read it. But only if you can tolerate torture scenes.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving.
Disappointing. He wastes pages upon pages describing various dishes at the dinner table and the fancies of the protagonist, and then the story abruptly ends with the protagonist running away in terror. Nothing really happens. No deaths or anything. Yawn.
Recommendation: Don't bother. Tim Burton's 1999 movie is way better.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.
Targeted at a 12-year-old audience, it's not a bad story, if a bit childish. I was surprised that it was as short as it was. My only complaint, and no doubt the typical one, is that it's a thinly-disguised masquerade of the Jesus story intended to make the latter seem heroic, getting sacrificed for the sins of man, etc., and rising from the dead.
Recommendation: If you've seen the recent movie, the book's basically identical, so don't bother, but if you've not seen the movie, read the book.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Caroll.
Urgh, a waste of time. I had to force myself to finish these two books, even more than I had to force myself to finish Swiss Family Robinson. And that's not because they're particularly long. Both books are a series of dream events/scenes with bizarre characters - mostly animals - who say nonsense things or get into quibbles with Alice over nonsense phrases and arguments, e.g. equivocation around the meaning of "fast" as "tight" and "rapid", etc. There are some vaguely cute references to formal logic as well. From a logician's or linguist's point of view, prior to formal studies of logic or linguistics, Caroll's work might be interesting as a showpiece of English weirdness, but apart from that it is unbearably dull. It goes on and on and on from one weird scene to the next, with very little to connect them and almost no storyline whatsoever; there is no antagonist, and no climax scene, and no denouement, etc. The resemblance of the recent Tim Burton movie to the "novel" (if you dare call it that), is passing at best. And the movie is vastly more interesting, even though it isn't full of pseudo-academic puns or points of oddity.
Recommendation: Go watch the movie and never read the book, it will disappoint you. On the other hand, if you're a very dull person who also enjoys bland wordplay, go read the book and NEVER watch the movie, because they're only passingly related and you'll be disappointed. E.g. in the book she's seven, whereas in the movie she's about to be married.

The Call of Cthulhu, by H. P. Lovecraft.
Cool, creepy. Told in the pre- or Victorian diary style, however. The gist of the story is an investigation into a cult. I won't spoil it by saying more.
Recommendation: Short enough to read quickly. I'd like to see it done as a movie.

Frankenstein, by Mary W. Shelley.
The usual diary or letter form of the 1800s and prior. This story didn't really capture my imagination until near the end when the monster goes on his revenge spree. I found it a bit tough going, partly because a lot of ancillary stories are narrated by the actors to each other, and they go on and on a bit. The part that bugged me the most: not only does it not explicitly say that he is animated by lightning, but the monster talks very eloquently - in French, in fact. Then there are the tremendous scientific problems with taking months to reanimate dead body parts to assemble the monster: Frankenstein - the scientist - didn't have a fridge, so it's just not plausible. I think I prefer the image of the green-skinned guy with the bolt through his neck who just moans and groans and lumbers along slowly, although Shelley's original interpretation of the monster is more horrifying. I say this because I feel more pity for a lumbering mute than a superhuman who just happens to be very ugly.
Recommendation: Worth reading, if a little tedious. Pity there's not a modern movie version of it.

Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, by R. L. Stevenson.
Quite well-written, it starts from the modern 3rd-person style, and only reverts to the old style of first-person letters at the end when the causes of the behaviour of Mr Hyde are explained. Quite a short story, reasonably well-paced. It could have been fleshed out a little more, with more suspense.
Recommendation: Short enough to read quickly. I'd like to see it done as a period-piece movie - i.e., I do not mean that dreadful version from a few years back which was set in modern USA. I mean the real thing set in the Victorian era. That's where it belongs. That's part of what makes the story creepy, is the gloomy London streets.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.
A series of narratives in the form of a reporter interviewing one of the chief scientists at the robotics factory. The narratives are only vaguely connected, so there's no overall storyline. There are also some anachronisms and wrong guesses, like everyone having a flying car in 1998. A bit tedious, with some good parts. Nothing at all like the recent movie, however, except for the scene where the robot hides amongst a crowd of robots. I kept wondering if I had perhaps obtained the wrong book, and that someone, as a joke, had changed the cover. No antagonist, barely a storyline, completely linear, with the chapters almost unrelated to each other. It seems as if Asimov was writing purely to speculate on how he thought the future would be, rather than trying to write a story.
Recommendation: Don't bother. No matter how lousy the recent movie was in the eyes of the purists, at least it had a plot, a storyline, suspense, and a point.

All content © J M Ostrowick, 2010

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Classic Book Reviews

Over the period of the next few weeks, I will be reviewing classic novels and posting my comments here.

Before I start, I'll share some of my general observations thus far:

Classic novels in the period 1600-1900 seem to all have these features in common:
1. They are all told from the first-person perspective ("I did this, I did that")
2. They are written as diaries or letters ("Dear Sir, I just saw Dracula")
3. They have major sentence run-on (multiple clauses separated by commas instead of fullstops)
4. They tend to focus on descriptions of scenery or the environment or new discoveries of "Natural Philosophy", i.e. Science, rather than, say, the emotional states or internal monologues of the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s).
5. They seldom contain action or love scenes, typically describing such events after the fact, and in one sentence.
6. They are racist and sexist.
7. Spellings are varied (show/shew, burthen/burden, etc.)

I suspect there are reasons for the above which can be explained in terms of the sociocultural milieu that we are looking at: the Enlightenment period. During this period, there was a substantial prudishness around sex, a fascination with the achievements of science and colonialism, and yet, traditional Christian values such as chastity, women's roles, etc., prevail. So these novels do not hesitate to go on and on for pages upon pages, about wonderful new creatures or plants, or how life occurs, etc. It's almost as if they're trying to serve some educational purpose. They also go on and on about white supremacy and the lack of cultivation of "savages".

When we get to the 20th Century, there is suddenly a shift: all the above 6 points change rapidly, and start to disappear. 20th-Century novels are typified by:

1. They are all told from the 3rd-person perspective ("Joe Soap did this, Joe Soap did that"); they are written as impartial 3rd-person observer perspective.
2. They have short sentences.
3. They have present-tense or recent past-tense speech exchanges in quote marks.
4. They tend to focus on descriptions of the emotional states or internal monologues of the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s).
5. They can or do contain action or love scenes, venturing into more detail on these.
6. They avoid racism and sexism, giving more active and intelligent roles to non-white-males.

This reflects the changes in the surrounding society: Women have been given the vote, slaves from non-white nations have been freed. There has been a discovery, since the invention of radio and TV, that people have short attention spans, so the writing has to be spiced up with sex and action, and sentences kept short to keep peoples' attention. The 3rd-person is a continuation, however, of the scientific perspective and purported neutrality of the novel's narrator. It serves to make the author invisible.

Some modern writers have reverted to the first-person style of writing, but, accustomed to the neutral 3rd-person, we find this first-person style naive or childish. It will be interesting to see what happens next. I suspect the next biggest impact on writing will be the Internet, which favours brevity, and the use of characters such as underscores, stars and brackets to make emphasis clearer. I've often joked that we should expect to see Shakespeare written thus:

        out damn spot! :-(