Category Archives: Religion

My Rating:
5.0 rating

ImaginedCommunities



As someone who has studied American history almost exclusively, I found Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson to be a refreshing and highly readable look at the cultural origins of, and theoretical explanations for, the rise of nationalism. Though often referencing histories and cultures with which I am unfamiliar, Anderson does a nice job of explaining their relevance to the overall theory he is trying to explain, in a way that doesn’t require extensive, or even passing knowledge of their origins. Perhaps as a result of my relatively limited experience with the histories of cultures outside of the United States, I found some of his conclusions relative to how American historical experience bolstered his arguments, to be somewhat questionable. Most specifically, his rejection of Tom Nairn’s view that nationalist movements have been popular in character and have made an effort to “induct the lower classes into political life,” is contrary to most of what I have read. (Anderson, 48) I also had some difficulty with his description of the American failure to absorb Canada and the existence of an independent Texas Republic, as examples of a comparative failure to form an English-wide-America, and with his simplistic description of the American Civil War as a simple contradiction of economies between North and South. Lastly, though I largely agree with his assertion that nationalism did not arise from “self-consciously held political ideologies,” I would argue that in the case of the United States this might be underestimated.

Anderson divides his book using three broad themes. First, he posits a definition of nationalism in which he introduces his theory of an “imagined community.” Second, he describes the cultural origins of nationalism as the result not of “self-consciously held political ideologies,” but as cultural systems that came earlier, specifically, religious community and the dynastic realm. It was the breakdown of these communities, along with a changed perception of the character of time and space, Anderson argues, that opened the door to the rise of nationalism. Lastly, he describes the confluence of events that gave rise to nationalism, how it became modernized and was replicated, and how it manifested itself at different times and in different regions.

Anderson has developed his theory of the rise of nationalism as an answer to three paradoxes that he describes as having “perplexed” other theorists of nationalism. These are, the “objective” modernity of nations as historians see them versus their antiquity as seen by nationalists, the concept of nationality as a socio-cultural concept versus the surety of its “concrete manifestations,” and the political power of nationalism versus its philosophical incoherence. (Anderson, 5) In part, to explain these paradoxes, Anderson proposes the following definition of nation: “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” (Anderson, 6) Nations are imagined because its citizens will never know the vast majority of their fellows, it is limited because it exists within finite boundaries, and it is sovereign because it was born “in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” (Anderson, 7) Within time and space the nation’s members view themselves as part of a broad community, moving together through time.

Anderson describes nationalism in relation to its antecedents – religious community and dynastic realm. He argues it is the breakdown of these that provided the opening for nationalism to rise. He also Religious communities were bound together through the use of symbols and sacred texts. A universal understanding of the sacredness of their language as mediated by the intelligentsia gave cohesion to religious communities. Exploration of the non-European world and the loss of confidence in the uniqueness of this sacred language explains, in part, the gradual breakdown of these religious communities. Concomitant with this were changes in the nature of the dynastic realm. These were characterized by centers of power, specifically in the person of a monarch. By definition, these communities were “porous” and indistinct. By the 17th century, the legitimacy of these dynastic monarchies came into question in Western Europe. In addition to this breakdown Anderson also contends the rise in popularity of the novel and newspapers caused conceptions of time and space to change. Rather than time being simultaneous, or as he describes it, in “messianic time,” the idea that everyone in society was moving forward as a community through calendrical time became dominant.

Preceding the rise of nationalism was the interaction between capitalism and communication, specifically the printing press. Anderson argues capitalism was important because the explosion in print distribution abetted the revolution in the use of vernacular languages. This provided a path for the use of language as a way to centralize political and governmental administration. Print languages created a unified way to conduct trade and communicate, thus altering and widening the conception of community.

While extraordinarily important in Anderson’s thesis this confluence of capitalism and print did not in and of itself lead to the rise of nationalism. One must also look at the formation of creole communities in the new world, and why they formed conceptions of their own nation-ness before it took hold in Europe. He defines creole nations as those created and led by people who shared a language with those against whom they fought to gain their independence. He concentrates primarily on those nations formed in opposition to the Spanish empire, with some discussion of the American break with Great Britain. He attributes this rise of nation-ness to a number of factors: the attempts at control by the “metropole” gave rise to an “us vs. them” mentality; the spread of ideas related to the enlightenment; the “willingness of the comfortable classes to sacrifice themselves; the improvement in trans-Atlantic communications; and the rise of the newspaper which “implied [a] refraction of even ‘world events’ into a specific imagined world of vernacular readers; and also an idea of steady, solid simultaneity through time.” (Anderson, 52, 63)

Anderson then observes that with the successful formation of nation-states in the new world came the beginning of an era of nationalist expansion in Europe. Specifically, the widespread distribution of print media and the growing strength and particularization of vernacular languages allowed these proto-nations to replicate or “modularize” the example of new world liberation to complete their own nationalist formation.

Anderson takes issue with the views of Tom Nairn, who, in a Marxist critique of nationalism, argues that “nationalist movements have been invariably populist in outlook and sought to induct lower classes into political life.” (Anderson, 48) Rather, Anderson contends, in many proto-nations it was the fear of lower-class mobilization, “to wit, Indian, or Negro-slave uprisings,” that spurred the drive for independence, (Anderson, 48) Most of his examples here involve nations attempting to break away from the domination of Madrid. However, he also uses the United States as an example of this, pointing out “that many of the leaders of the independence movement in the Thirteen Colonies were slave-owning agrarian magnates…who in the 1770s were enraged by the loyalist governor’s proclamation freeing those slaves who broke wi6th their seditious masters.” (Anderson, 49) As I know little of the independence movements in Central and South America I will not dispute Anderson’s contentions with regards those nations, however, as it relates to American independence I do question the definition of the lower-classes as simply Indians and Negro-slaves. Certainly they were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, however, there was an entire class of yeoman farmer and mechanic who I would consider lower class. Howard Zinn (author of A People’s History of the United States) would disagree. He views this class as a proto middle class, designed, in part, to buffer the wealthy from the demands of the lower class. While a conventional interpretation of the American Revolution notes the common cause the wealthy and lower classes made to defeat the British – an interpretation I agree with – Anderson and Zinn would likely argue they were making common cause to protect their economic interests on the backs of the poor who ended up doing most of the fighting. There is some truth in this, although studies specifically looking at the motivations of the militia and Continental Army find it tracks very closely to the rhetoric extolling liberty and freedom that is the conventional wisdom.

Ultimately Spain was unable to establish a Spanish-wide community in the new world, largely due to limitations of technology and an inability to control a region so large. Anderson uses the failure of the United States to assimilate Canada, and the temporary existence of an Independent Texas Republic as evidence the United States was unable to create an English-American wide community parallel to the Spanish failure. I question his conclusion here. The failure of America to assimilate Canada was not the result of the backwardness of capitalism or a lack of “technology in relation to the Administrative outreach of the empire.” (Anderson, 63) The American failure to assimilate Canada was a largely a military one, combined with a lack of will. Had Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec in 1775 been successful – as it nearly was – Canada would very likely be part of the United State today. Had the United States had the political will to commit the resources necessary to wage a true war against the British in Canada in 1812 it is not inconceivable at least part of Canada would have been ceded to the United States as part of a peace settlement. The limits of “administrative outreach” are belied by the subsequent expansion to the Pacific, and the successful war against Mexico. Anderson also uses the example of the American Civil War to further support his point regarding the limits of the “bonds of nationalism.” (Anderson, 64) He argues that the combined effects of rapid expansion and economic differences resulted in this conflict. Again, I question this assertion. The issue of slavery was primary. Had it not been there is no evidence this rupture would have occurred. The conflict over slavery had economic aspects certainly, particularly in the debate over the relative merits of a free-labor vs. slave-labor economy. And there were certainly issues related to the rapid expansion of the country, but these were primarily political and related to the expansion of the slave power into western territories. None but the most rabid southern nationalist actually desired the break. It was only the perceived (not actual) inflexibility of those opposed to the expansion of slavery west that induced them to feel otherwise. I really don’t think Anderson made a particularly compelling case for the limits of capitalism and the deleterious effects of “administrative stretch” using the United States as an example of it.

Lastly, while I agree with his rejection of “self-consciously held political ideologies” as a cause for the rise of nationalism, I do think he might have pointed to the experience of the United States as an exception that proves the rule. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the break with Great Britain was cloaked in ideology. Notions of liberty and republicanism were central to involving all classes in the effort. The success of Thomas Paine’s publications and the use of slogans such as “taxation without representation,” show that at least at a popular level, ideology was an important ingredient in the rise of American nationalism. Now, Zinn and Nairn would likely argue these assertions of fealty to liberty and freedom were propaganda designed to lull the masses into compliance. That it was ironic that a country fighting for natural rights would still deny them to most of the population even after independence is not lost on me. However, as an explanation for the rise of nationalism it really does not matter what the reality of these assertions were, it only mattered what people believed they were. And there is ample evidence Americans of all classes internalized them, and still internalize them as the (often shallow) regard American’s have for the popular notion of the founding shows.

Overall this is really compelling reading. Like the work of Gary Gerstle in American Crucible, this really makes you look at nationalism in ways that challenge common conceptions. With the exceptions I noted above I found Anderson’s thesis very persuasive. Once read there is little chance you will read any account of America’s founding and growth in the same light.

 

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

Darwin



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.

Darwin_Tree_1837

Page from Darwin’s Journal “B” whee he sketched out his theory of natural selection.

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.

Highly recommended!

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

DIstantMirror



I tried to read this book several years ago and did not get very far, largely because I had no grounding in European history, but also because most of the people and place names are French which I find very difficult to follow.  Recently I decided to give it another try however, partially because I had done more reading about European history and thought I would be better able to understand the historical and geographical references, but also because I had access to the audio format of the book which I thought might make it easier to deal with the French language aspects. I was right. This is a fascinating and extremely well written look at what is referred to as the “Crisis of the Late Middles Ages” that encompasses events occurring during the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe. These events set back centuries of progress, devastated local economies and killed off nearly half its population.

Starting with the little ice age in 1314, and encompassing the Black Death which killed up to half the population of Europe, the Hundred Years War between England and France, and the Schism in in the Catholic church, Europe suffered through over one-hundred years of demographic and religious upheaval, and economic collapse. It was a period characterized by popular uprisings among the bourgeois and peasants in France, England and Switzerland, by devastation wrought by brigandage, nearly constant warfare between England and France and the shifting loyalties of the nobility in both countries, devastating antisemitism, and the last gasps of crusade against the enemies of Christianity.

Barbara Tuchman recounts all of this using one French noble as the focus of her narrative. Enguerrand de Coucy VII, the Lord of Coucy was a French noble who seemed to be involved in nearly all of the momentous events that took place during this period. Largely loyal to the various French sovereigns that inhabited that throne during his lifetime, he nevertheless became the son-in-law of Kind Edward III of England after marrying his daughter Isabella. Named the Earl of Bedford by King Edward, de Coucy was granted estates and land in England, thus demonstrating the often shifting loyalties of the nobility during this period. de Coucy finally died as the result of hardships endured as the captive of Bayezid I, Sultan of the Ottoman empire who defeated crusaders sent to drive them out of Bulgaria at the Battle of Nicopolis.

Chateau de Coucy

Chateau de Coucy

Using Froissart’s Chroicles , considered the best account of the Hundred Years War and of the chivalric culture in England and France as one of her main sources, Tuchman is able to distill what has to be fairly sparse and often contradictory documentation, into a very coherent narrative. Ultimately she demonstrates the vacuity of this chivalric ethic, which emphasized bravery, piety and nobility. When presented with the opportunity to either enrich themselves monetarily or by the acquisition of power, or to honor the chivalric code, nobles invariably chose the former option.

My favorite parts of the book were sections that dealt as much as was possible with available sources, the ways different sections of society lived their day to day lives, how they conducted business, ate, worshiped, reproduced, and dealt with illness and death. On the other hand, the narrative describing the battles that took place between various factions during the Hundred Years War became kind of tedious for me, not because they were not well written, but because while each was perhaps interesting on its own terms, the nature of this war was such that they did not really push the story on to an ultimate conclusion. In the end the war just sort of petered out. I also found the sections detailing the Papal schism to be fascinating.

Tuchman is perhaps more well known for her definitive account of the lead up to World War I, The Guns of August, a book I have yet to read. If that book is as clear and forceful as this one I definitely have something to look forward to.

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

Gilead

Beautifully written with compelling characters and effectively situated in a time and place easy to envision, Gilead still felt very ephemeral for me. By the end I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to have gotten from it, or even what the author was trying to get across. The book is an epistolary, essentially a series of interconnected letters, written by John Ames, a 77 year old preacher in the fictional small town of Gilead, IA, to his 7 year old son. Ames has a weak heart and doesn’t expect to live long, so he decided to write to his son with ruminations on his family including his abolitionist grandfather and atheist brother, his second marriage to a much younger woman, his view of life, death, religion, his ministry, and about the family of his best friend, another preacher named Boughton and his son John Ames Boughton who reappears after being away for many years.

The most compelling parts of this book for me were the sections dealing with Rev. Ames’s family history. His grandfather, also a preacher, was a rabid abolitionist and collaborator with John Brown and others during the time before the Civil War when the fight over whether Kansas would be a slave or free state was occurring. Known as “bleeding Kansas” this time saw a number of atrocities committed by both sides trying to assert control in the state. The implication in this story is that Ames’s grandfather was involved in these atrocities which placed a strain on his relationship with his son trying to reconcile what must have been a disconcerting juxtaposition of his father as a preacher, with the violence he apparently committed. Placing the narrative in relation to an historic event like this, one  that dovetails with the religious ruminations of Ames, is very effective.

Setting the book in the Midwest during the 1950s had some resonance for me as well. Much of the book is devoted to the history of the town of Gilead. Having grown up in nearby Minnesota, much of it reminded me of the small towns I have visited tracking down my own family’s history. Descriptions of the people, the geography, and what daily life was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries felt familiar to me, though of course I didn’t experience them first hand.

The major issue I had with the book was its overall theological theme. I think the author was trying to explore the deeper questions of existence, life after death, the nature of grace and forgiveness and the notion that our five senses cannot possibly comprehend all that exists. The implication the author wants us to conclude therefore, is that one has to have faith that an eventual revelation of this wonder would be made known to us by a higher power (God). Put into modern day terms Ames would be considered a relatively liberal Christian, willing to take seriously the opinions of atheists and others who did not subscribe to his beliefs. I did appreciate this. However, I have always believed that religion, no matter how deeply felt, cannot help but limit ones world view. No matter how one tries to interpret it, the documents and traditions of religious belief will always put a limit on the scope of knowledge – and limit the interpretation of discovery. Freeing ones mind from religious restrictions for me opens up many more possibilities for comprehending the universe than any belief system can possibly provoke. As Carl Sagan famously said, “We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it…you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.

So, as Ames tried to wend his way toward finding the answers to questions he was asking through the use of scripture and the interpretive work of others, it seemed like he was looking for gaps that might let him expand his view, when to me freeing himself of those texts altogether would have enabled him to do so more quickly and more effectively. By the end I was not really sure if he had elevated his understanding or not. I found this somewhat frustrating, though I recognize I come from a place in terms of faith that most who have read this book probably do not.

I can see why this novel has received so much praise, it really is compelling writing. So despite the let down I felt at the end I would still recommend it very highly!

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

DanteInferno

Works like this have always intimidated me. I think pretty linearly and will usually take what I read literally before thinking about it much, or having it explained to me. Also, I’m not a believer so it was guaranteed I would miss many of the allusions in this. However I am happy to say while I did not really catch on to all of it, I was able to grasp the meaning of most of it…and I have to say I kind of enjoyed it. It helped a lot having the translators summary and notes to guide me along. So while I am not going to become an avid reader of poetry for now at least, I am not quite as intimidated as I was!

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

MotherTeresa

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.

 

 

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5.0 rating

CampDavid

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David is a really well written and exciting account of the thirteen days these three leaders spent at Camp David hammering out one of the most significant agreements in human history – the Camp David Accords. The description of the personalities of the three men was the most fascinating part of the story, most particularly how their backgrounds motivated them and informed the way the approached these negotiations. It really brought into relief how damaging an adherence to dogmatic religious belief can be, but also how an enlightened religious outlook can bring about great change.

Begin, the most truculent of the three, and the most dogmatically religious, on several occasions, threatened to scuttle negotiations over what most would be consider relatively minor points, but which for him were a point of religious pride. Carter, used his religion as a way to give him strength during the negotiations which nearly broke down virtually every day, and which only succeeded due to the force of his intellect and persistence. Sadat viewed himself as a man of destiny who had been born for this moment. It was this conviction that kept him from walking out of negotiations with Begin who he had grown to despise.

The author expertly weaves the biographies of the three men, along with other major players throughout the narrative. It is through these biographies that one comes to understand the intractability of the problems plaguing the middle east.  That Carter was able to pull this off was nearly miraculous, and I think underrated now as an example of Presidential leadership.

I actually don’t want to get into too much detail here because though the outcome is well known, how they got there is fascinating and reads like a thriller in Wright’s capable hands – so I will leave it there. Highly Recommended!!!

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4.0 rating

Candidate

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.

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My Rating:
5.0 rating

Christian

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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.

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Edgardo

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Sadly, my background in European history is quite deficient, so much of what was in this book I had to reread a couple of times. Even still, this is a really engrossing book; extremely well written, deftly organized, and very readable even to folks like me who have little grounding in European history (especially Italian history).

It’s a sad story of a little Jewish boy (Edgardo Mortara) taken from his parents by the Catholic church because the child had supposedly been baptized by the family’s Catholic servant, and their efforts to get him back. It is told against the backdrop of the turmoil surrounding the unification of Italy and backlash against Papal temporal rule in the middle part of the nineteenth century.

It highlights very well the discrimination practiced against Jews – particularly by the Catholic church – presaging what would happen to them in the 1940s.

Highly recommended!

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Current Bucket Status

Currently Reading: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Current Audio Book: The Free State of Jones by Victoria Bynum

On Deck: Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood

In the Bullpen: Summer for the Gods: The Scopes trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson

Last Read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline


From Bucket Authors


New Bucket Books

An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield

The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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