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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Why would atheists study religion?

Just when you thought that it was safe to ignore the “debate” between science and religion, along comes The Chronicle Review with a long article on the emergence of a “new” science, “evolutionary religious studies.”

From the start, let’s get the oxymoron jokes out of the way by noting that it’s not called “evolutionary religious beliefs.” The point isn’t to prove religion right; it’s to examine religion’s evolutionary character, its origins and its impact on individuals and societies.

When the suggestion arose that we consider the social origins of religion, a member of my Monday morning discussion and coffee group (not to be confused with my Wednesday morning coffee and discussion group) demurred, likening the suggestion to inviting a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses for tea and a chat. His distaste for the whole idea was clear.
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Quantum physics — making God more likely?

Big Questions Online (BQO) is a web production of the religion-promoting Templeton Foundation, and as such the site is prone to taking seriously some pretty silly ideas.

The latest example is the provocatively — and misleadingly — titled recent article,  “Does Quantum Physics Make It Easier to Believe in God?”

The article starts with “No,” then proceeds to a long summary of some of the major characteristics of quantum physics. It ends with the argument — and here’s where the silly comes in — that since concrete materialism is apparently undermined by quantum physics, all bets are off, and belief in God is more reasonable.

What makes this so silly, of course, is that even if the assertion that quantum physics disproves materialism were true, that would have absolutely no effect on the reasonableness of belief in God, or gods.
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It’s not God, but neither is God a Higgs

The big news of last week was the detection of the Higgs boson, the missing subatomic particle predicted by the Standard Model but never found until now.

It’s a big deal, despite the fact that everyone knows that the Higgs boson is not really “the God particle,” even if it does bring the mass to everything else.

OK, so that was a very bad joke. But the way that the Higgs fleshes out the predominant description of subatomic physics is no joke. It’s a primary example of the methodological differences between the rationalism of science and the metaphysics of belief.

This is not new territory, but you don’t get such a perfect case every day. There is no clearer example of the difference between postulation and presumption than what we find in the search for the Higgs. Continue reading

It’s hard to be rational about irrationality

Last time, I wrote a rather frustrated little piece about how hard it is for a species as habitually irrational as we are to have real democracy.

The more I thought about what I’d written, and about the many books and articles that had prompted it, the more I appreciated an article that I had read way back in April. (In online terms, that’s a couple of decades ago, not just a couple of months.)

In a Scientific American blog piece titled “The Irrationality of Irrationality: The Paradox of Popular Psychology,” Samuel McNerney cautions us to tread lightly when we draw conclusions from the recent flood of popularized psychology explanations of how and why we’re not really rational creatures at all — at least, not often, and never entirely.

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Why is science a target for mindless mockery?

If I say something you don’t like, I hope that you’ll be civil enough to engage the point of disagreement directly, without undue derision or invective. You would be right to expect the same graciousness from me.

But that isn’t always what happens when science encounters resistance from an audience that is, for one reason or another, biased against it.

My observations are prompted by a dispiriting, if unsurprising, reaction in the online version of the local broadsheet daily to Nature‘s publication of an article titled “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosystem” (Nature, June 6, 2012).

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