Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.

 

Accommodating religion doesn’t require adopting its trappings

I tried very hard to read A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Secular Bible. I really did. I started the book three times, and the last two times I skipped the soporific beginning and started to read from a random point somewhere in the middle of the book. I couldn’t do it. The Good Book is just not a very good book.

It’s not that Grayling’s prose is particular bad, although it’s not particularly good. It’s not that many of the things he writes are little more than self-help nostrums, although many of them are certainly that.

The problem is that Grayling’s imitation of the style of the old English bible makes his “new bible” seem more a parody than a transformation. He hasn’t so much updated the old bible as he has backdated his new ideas.

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Saving religion by deleting all the doctrine

Many critics attack the New Atheists as unsophisticated literalists who don’t understand much less appreciate all of the nuance and subtlety of religion.

By engaging rationally with the truth claims of various religions, the critics say, the New Atheists miss the crucial point that religion is, in the words of Robert Bellah, not necessarily a thing you believe but “a thing you do.”

I’ve always found this approach to the defense of religion curious — and ultimately self-defeating. Jettisoning the doctrine to save the practice seems to me so obviously self-deceptive that I marvel at how easily people do it. If science shows my truths to be wrong, well, then I don’t need them!

Bellah, author of the recent book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Agewas interviewed by Hans Joas in the latest issue of The Hedgehog. Despite his reasonableness and erudition, Bellah falls into the “religious faith isn’t faith in anything specific” defense with graceful ease.
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Is religion crucial to civilization?

Some believers are like loud children, banging on their drums of faith in an insistent, unchanging, ultimately numbing rhythm.

Others, like the British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks, are more nuanced, and they can produce beautiful melodies that make their claims seem natural and desirable.

In the end, alas, the basis of the Chief Rabbi’s music, of his faith, is as vain and insubstantial as is that of the beaters and bleaters.

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Is the centre of the universe in your head?

Underlying some of the consciousness discussion here recently is the fundamental question “Where Is Reality?” — or, in its more provocative version, “Is Reality Real?”

The ongoing debate about the nature of consciousness is in one sense a narrow-focus version of this broader question.
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Life, heat death, and the meaning of it all

Thirteen and a half billion years ago, something happened. Billions, perhaps trillions of years from now, nothing will ever happen again.

For a short time near the beginning of that unimaginable span, conditions in the universe are right for life. For an instant during that window of existence, humans live. And for a brief part of that instant, you and I live.

Yes, I’ve been watching cosmology documentaries again. Sigh. Continue reading