Category Archives: Atheism
A really pleasant account of Charles Darwin’s academic life and the process by which he eventually published one of the most impactful books in human history – The Origin of Species, in which he postulated the theory of natural selection, or as it is known today, evolution. He later expanded his theories to include homo sapiens in The Descent of Man. What is really terrific about this book is that it presents a Charles Darwin completely devoid of the stereotypes of him we are familiar with today. Among those who continue to adhere to a biblical version of creation Darwin is a villainous anti-Christ, sent here to destroy people’s faith in God. Among those who revere his work he has become an untouchably great man, devoid of flaws, and who epitomizes the triumph of reason over superstition. Though I have always leaned towards the latter view of him, and believe it to be closer to the truth, neither stereotype really fully captures the man. In this book however, the author has done exactly that.
The basics of how Darwin arrived at the theory of evolution are fairly well known. Shortly after graduating from Oxford in 1831 Darwin signed on as an informal member of the crew of the H.M.S. Beagle, about to depart on an extended voyage of discovery. As a naturalist in training Darwin did not hold an official position other than as observer and collector. The voyage took over five years, visiting places as varied as Chile, Patagonia, the Galapagos and Falkland Islands, South Africa, and Singapore. Observing the variation and geographic distribution of species during this voyage eventually led Darwin to postulate natural selection (known as transmutation of species then, evolution now). In particular, fossils of birds collected primarily in the Galapagos and Chile showed not just variation in a particular species, but the development of new species adapted to the environment they inhabited. Finding one species abundant on one island, and completely absent on another nearby led him to consider how species developed over vast periods of time. After returning to England Darwin formulated his theory which he published in his two earth shattering volumes, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life later shortened to Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex shortened to The Descent of Man. This “theory” which has been reconfirmed over the ensuing years has become one of the most controversial scientific conclusions in world history. Hardly the result one would have expected from this unprepossessing man who generally shunned controversy, and for whom any kind of stress or conflict would induce bouts of debilitating illness.
What most don’t realize about the well accepted version of Darwin’s evolution on evolution, was how long it took between the time he initially began formulating his theory until it was actually published – thirty-one years. He spent much of that time publishing on other topics including a well received account of his time aboard the H.M.S. Beagle and a ten year study he conducted on barnacles…yes…barnacles. During that time he kept refining his thoughts on transmutation that he recorded in a series of journals. He felt no rush to publish. While others had postulated variants on transmutation, most famously Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who proposed a kind of directed evolution in which organisms could pass on acquired or learned traits to their offspring, no one had proposed anything as radical as what Darwin was contemplating…until June of 1858 that is.
On June 18, 1858 Darwin received from Alfred Russel Wallace, an amateur naturalist and collector, a manuscript he had written based on his observations during several overseas trips. Disturbingly close to the theories Darwin had been refining for nearly 30 years he realized he was about to be overtaken. Unwilling to discard honor in order to usurp Wallace, Darwin turned to friends who arranged to have both papers read jointly at a session of the Linnean society. Honor satisfied Darwin turned to writing a longer abstract of his theories. Abandoning the multi-volume, minutely cited work he had intended Darwin produce a 500 page book that he referred to as an abstract of his theory. This of course was Origin of Species. He had intended a more sedate release of his work, allowing his theories to percolate out rather than exploding all at once. Wallace’s challenge sped up that timetable. Darwin seemed to realize once the implications of what he proposed sunk in, that he would be the focus of unwanted attention, both good and bad. This was something his delicate constitution had trouble adjusting too.
For most of his adult life Darwin was subject to periods of debility that manifested as headaches, heart palpitations, foggy headedness, nausea and most annoyingly, excessive vomiting. It got so bad he had a special alcove constructed in his office to allow him a place to get sick while working. He saw a number of doctors who failed to arrive at a satisfactory diagnosis. He tried a number of quack cures that seemed to offer relief at various times. That he lived so long with this condition indicates it was very likely a psychosomatic illness brought on by stress and conflict. Luckily he had the support of a devoted wife, his first cousin Emma Wedgewood, who helped support his work, cared for him during illness, bore him nine children, and who made sure his legacy was preserved. Ironically, for Darwin was a confirmed agnostic, his wife was a devout Christian who feared for the immortality of her husbands soul.
So, far from being the single minded zealot who set out to destroy faith, or the mythical demi-god who brought the light of truth to the masses, conventional views of Darwin today, he was rather a shy, introverted family man, married to a devout Christian, who shunned controversy and conflict. The irony of his life then was that his work was not only controversial but that to this day it induces the most heated conflict, and, that he was devoted to a woman who espoused a view of life his theory directly contradicted! The author illuminates this side of Darwin brilliantly. Most historical biographies attempt to bring life to their subjects. This is an example of a success. I think it was a great choice not including extensive detail on his voyage aboard the Beagle, concentrating instead on the intellectual and emotional journey Darwin made to the eventual publication of his theories.
Even more impressive than the theory itself, is the fact that he came up with the idea for natural selection without the benefit of the kind of biological proof that would confirm them over the next century. The science of genetics had not yet been born when Darwin published Origin of Species, yet all genetic work since then has confirmed the accuracy of his conclusions, to the point where it is no longer considered a theory in the common sense of the word, but as it is used in science, to indicate to a near certitude its veracity – as in the theory of gravity. Yet many, not wishing to abandon the faith they were raised with continue to deny its truth. I can only hope more books like this will be included in school curricula so we can get to a point where knowledge is no longer a slave to faith.
An unfortunately titled book that is nevertheless a very well argued if strident argument against the notion that Mother Teresa was the selfless advocate for the poor that her reputation would suggest.
Hitchens argues that her work with the poor was less an attempt to alleviate their suffering than a desire to use them to promote a retrograde worldview; “to propagandize one highly subjective view of human nature and need, so that she may one day be counted as a beatific founder of a new order and discipline within the Church itself.” He backs this up with several lines of evidence.
He interviewed a number of former volunteers with Teresa’s “Missionaries of Charity,” documenting the substandard condition at a number of their facilities despite the enormous amounts of money they had been given. The hospice facilities for example, provided almost no palliative care, reused unsterilized equipment, and provided nothing in the way of physical comfort for the patients under their care. In one documented case a 15 year old boy became terminal after the nuns running the hospice facility neglected to get the boy proper medical care. Time after time, “Missionaries of Charity” declined to provide the resources necessary to actually lift the poor under their care out of the poverty they were suffering under. As Hitchens points out, whenever the needs of the poor conflicted with her religious worldview, it was the religious view that won out. Militantly anti-abortion and anti-contraception, she viewed the over population she saw around her as evidence of God’s grace.
Her reputation as an political neophyte allowed her to escape criticism for letting her name and reputation be used by various crooks, thugs and dictators including the brutal dictator of Haiti Jean-Claude Duvalier, and crook Charles Keating, looking to exculpate their crimes in the eyes of the public. In fact the evidence shows she was not a political neophyte and knew quite well how and when she could use the support of such people without drawing criticism to herself. A notorious example of this is the letter she wrote to Judge Lance Ito asking that Charles Keating be shown leniency in his sentencing for bilking hundreds of millions of dollars from the unsuspecting investors he hoodwinked. When a prosecutor in the case wrote a reply explaining exactly what Keating had done and that perhaps the Christian thing to do would be to return the money she had been given by Keating so it could be returned to its owners, he was met with silence.
I’m not an uncritical fan of Hitchens. He sometimes went out of his way to be insulting (as the title of this books shows). His views on American politics and culture were juvenile and often ill-informed. and of course his support for the Iraq war was a spectacular blunder. Having said all that however, we need folks like Hitchens to stir up the pot and force us to take a critical look at the people and institutions we rely on to make sure we are not deluding ourselves about their effectiveness. This goes for religious institutions as well. Were the facilities under Mother Teresa’s direction subject to the same scrutiny as those run by secular non-profits or the government they would have been shut down, or their funds would have dried up as donors got word of their ineffectiveness.
Both Hitchens and Mother Teresa have passed away of course, so neither can elaborate or defend their positions. I have tried to look for a reasoned look at her work from a sympathetic viewpoint, but all seem to be of the hagiographic variety. I will keep looking
Missionary Position continues to have relevance due to the cautionary tale it highlights.
A fun though slight autobiography of mathematician and prominent American atheist, Herb Silverman, who recounts his Jewish upbringing, his career as a mathematics professor, and his late conversion from an apathetic to activist voice for atheism.
Some of the most entertaining parts of the book involve his upbringing in a Jewish family, one which frowned on too much fraternization with gentiles and which certainly would not condone marriage outside the faith. Silverman ended up disappointing his parents on both counts. Though nothing particularity profound happened to him as he grew up in his average blue collar Jewish family, he developed an above average interest in both mathematics and in gently, but humorously challenging the norms he was expected to adhere too. Even as he entered academia he refused to conform too much, although he did it with such good grace and humor those he challenged couldn’t bring themselves to sever their relationships with him.
He realized at a very early age he was an atheist. Like many who begin digging into the faith in which they were raised, Silverman soon realized what he was being taught did not hold up when subjected to the scrutiny of reason. However, while he enjoyed his non-conformity on other areas, he maintained a kind of apathetic atheism, neither hiding it nor wearing it on his sleeve. It wasn’t until he had landed at the institution where he would spend most of his academic career – The College of Charleston – that he began to rebel against some of the institutional prejudice that existed against non-believers.
In 1990 he was persuaded to run for Governor of South Carolina primarily as a protest against a state law that prohibited anyone from holding public office who did not profess belief in a supreme being. Despite being clearly unconstitutional, violating both article 6 and the 1st amendment, no Republican politicians in the state, including Governor Carroll Campbell, would speak against it. On the contrary, they defended the law. Eventually, due to unethical political pressure Silverman was removed from the ballot before his challenge made it to court. By the time it did the court refused to rule arguing he no longer had standing.There was one more office he could pursue however.
The law preventing non-believers from holding public office also included Notary Publics, applications for which were routinely approved. Silverman paid his $25 expecting the state to tacitly admit the law was unconstitutional by approving his application. When Governor Campbell rejected the application, Silverman with the help of the ACLU eventually got the law declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court and the law was invalidated.
From that time forward Silverman increased his activism, eventually speaking on the subject, debating prominent theists, and helping to form the Secular Coalition for America.
What is fascinating about Silverman is that he seems to have a way to disarm those who disagree with him, with humor and a genuine interest in the views of others. He is not afraid to disagree, but he is never disagreeable which I think increases the persuasiveness of his message.
The book is not perfect. He seems to take great pleasure in discussing every aspect of his sex life, which started slow but eventually picked up steam. A little too much discussion for my taste. Though his recollections of the many debates he has engaged in are very entertaining I find it a bit hard to believe he outclassed his opponents as much as he describes. In fact I watched a couple of these and though he is certainly most persuasive on the facts, his debating style was sometimes not up to the challenge. And near the end it devolves from autobiography to lesson plan, first on how to deal with non-believers, and then on the beauty of mathematics (interesting but out of place).
Overall a very easy and entertaining read…definitely recommended.
Sam Harris is an excellent writer; clear and concise without being condescending. This book is more than just an argument against religion, it is also a plea to judge the claims made by religion about the universe and our place in it, using the same standards of proof we expect from every other discipline. As with other books advocating reason over religion if you are an atheist you will find plenty of ammo here to bolster you arguments, if you are questioning your faith you will find a lot here to think about, and if you are secure in your faith there is nothing here to be afraid of.
Richard Dawkins pulls no punches. This book advocates strongly, and persuasively, for an atheistic world view. Some may think this type of in your face atheism is unseemly, but as Dawkins points out, he is no more strident than religious groups are at advocating for their point of view.
His arguments take two basic tracks:
1. Evidence is overwhelming that God does not exist, and that the work many ascribe to God is more simply explained by natural processes (Darwinism etc). He looks at many of the ways people try to reconcile religion and science and comes away arguing they are not reconcilable. Religion is simply not a reliable source for evidence of the creation or of evolution. If God created the universe, he argues, then who created God? A question there is no answer to.
2. He argues religion, rather than being a benign institution is actually dangerous, is responsible for holding back progress and as a whole, has caused far more harm than good.
Both are very persuasive. His arguments against the existence of God are sometimes hard to understand as it gets into a fairly technical (at least for me) discussion of biology.
The section of the book in which he argues religion is a harmful institution are very compelling. Not that I agree with every one of them. In my personal life I know many religious people who do not fit into the parameters of that argument. However, taken at a macro level his argument is hard to refute.
He ends the book with a very beautiful, affirmative argument for the transformational power of science. He agrees with Carl Sagan that religion actually limits the wonder one can experience when contemplating the natural world.
I personally enjoyed this book very much.
If you are an atheist it will give you more than enough ammo to engage in discussions of atheism vs. theism you may have with others.
If you are wavering this may give you the information you have been looking for to help you decide.
If you are secure in your faith this book is nothing to be afraid of.