August 29th, 2007

Books!

Arrgh ... so behind on these!

Those who follow my regular blog (as opposed to my book review blog), know that I have been in a bit of chaos lately, and was on the road, etc. for most of the past two weeks. I brought along 2 books that I was half done with and another to start when those were finished, and I am definitely feeling the pressing weight of having 3 unwritten reviews hanging over my head at this point!

Richard Dawkins' A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love was the first one of these I got through (finishing it on 8/16 in Billings, MT). This was my second of Dawkins' books, and it took me a while to "get into the flow" of this being a collection of 30-some articles, papers, letters, and presentations he'd written over the years, generally cobbled together into thematic sections (although not specifically those themes enumerated in the sub-title).

In many ways, A Devil's Chaplain reminded me of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. It is largely a defense of science against "fuzzy thinking", especially as manifested by religion, although it also has a lot of side-issue stuff in it as well. Collections like this can be superb (being the best of the minor works of an author, collected and arranged into a coherent whole), but are more often flawed by organization, selection, and editorial laxness. Unfortunately, this is on the majority side of that equation, bogged down a bit with paeans to fallen comrades and similar diversions.

The meat of this book, however, is the part dealing with religion. Back in the 1970's Dawkins coined the term "meme" and in this he postulates that religion is a disease spread on a memetic level; in the introduction to his "The Infected Mind" section he writes:

To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often asked why I am so hostile to "organized religion". My first response is that I am not exactly friendly towards disorganized religion either. As a lover of truth, I am suspicious of strongly held beliefs that are unsupported by evidence: fairies, unicorns, werewolves, any of the infinite set of conceivable and unfalsifiable beliefs epitomized by Bertrand Russell's hypothetical china teapot orbiting the sun. The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell's teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt, and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don't exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don't stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don't warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don't kneecap those who put the tea in first.
Brilliant. However, even this section is a bit uneven, despite the Viruses of the Mind piece being well worth the entire book. There is fascinating material dealing with his own schooling, reactions to the "usual suspects" trotted out when puzzling questions are addressed, and even an atheistic "call to arms" penned in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Needless to say, I am hoping that Dawkins' The God Delusion (which I own but have not managed to read as yet) builds upon the gems here and (by being a full book on the one topic) avoids the problems inherent in this format.

Of course, over-all, these are quibbles. I very much enjoyed the book once I made peace with its editorial structure, and would recommend it to anybody of the "freethought" bent. This is still in print, so should be available at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, but is also at Amazon at a 22% discount, and is available from their new/used guys for about half off.


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