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up next: physicist Dr. Leonard Mlodinow

CORRECTION. The lecture flyer that was mailed to our members incorrectly listed the weekday for this lecture as Monday. The lecture is on a Sunday.
Leonard Mlodinow

Leonard Mlodinow

The Drunkard’s Walk:
How Randomness
Rules Our Lives

SUNDAY, March 21, 2010 at 2 pm

A DRUNKARD’S WALK is a type of random statistical distribution with important applications in scientific studies ranging from biology to astronomy. Mlodinow, a visiting lecturer at Caltech and coauthor with Stephen Hawking of A Briefer History of Time, takes us on a walk through the hills and valleys of randomness and how it directs our lives more than we realize. MORE…

Books by Leonard Mlodinow

Skepticality: The Official Podcast of Skeptic Magazine

Church State Update

This past week has been particularly troubling for secular humanists and freethinkers, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the words “In God We Trust” on American currency and “Under God” as part of the Pledge of Allegiance are not in violation of the First Amendment rights of nontheists.

Meanwhile, the conservative majority of the Texas State Board of Education (whose sheer size and buying power influence textbook content nationwide) revised its curricula to reflect a less secular version of history, economics and sociology. Among other revisionist changes, this reduces the role of President Thomas Jefferson as a revolutionary author.

This week on Skepticality, Swoopy talks with Sean Faircloth (the new Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America) about these troubling current events. Sean also talks about the Coalition’s recent historic meeting with White House officials to open a policy dialog with the Obama Administration — the first of its kind for American nontheists.


In this week’s eSkeptic, Kenneth Grubbs reviews The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins as well as and The Case for God by Karen Armstrong. Kenneth Grubbs is a freelance writer living in Michigan.


The Greatest Show on Earth (detail of cover)

Is There Not Grandeur in this View?

book reviews by Kenneth Grubbs

“ONE OF THE CONDITIONS OF ENLIGHTENMENT has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of.” Does this compelling passage originate from Karen Armstrong’s newest release, The Case for God, or did Richards Dawkins pen these words in his most recent achievement, The Greatest Show on Earth? Read on to find out.

Karen Armstrong once steeped herself for seven isolating years in the confines of a strict Catholic Order in England. She resigned the Order in 1969 shortly before suffering a collapse and the eventual diagnosis of epilepsy. But in spite of being soured to the rigors of modern Christian doctrine, Armstrong’s spirituality has nevertheless grown, both in scope and diversity. This latest offering, The Case for God, is an epic historical journey interpreting the rise and fall of humanity’s perceptions of God. The author’s personal perspective lends weight and insight to her words. She begins by asking the reader to understand that pre-modern religion originated as an action, not as a belief. She writes, “Religion, therefore was not primarily something that people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action.”

Armstrong goes on to explain that most pre-modern cultures came to recognize two distinct ways of thinking — the Greeks called them mythos and logos. “Logos (reason), was the pragmatic mode of thought,” but for understanding human suffering or the ultimate meaning of life, “people turned to mythos (myth, meaningful stories).” Spiritual transcendence was a process wherein one arrives at a place beyond words or thought, a state of “unknowing,” or ekstasis.

Armstrong tells us that even early Christianity was to be, “imparted in a ritualized setting to people who were properly prepared and were eager to be transformed by it.” It wasn’t until the 4th century that, “Christianity had begun to move in a slightly different direction and developed a preoccupation with doctrinal correctness that would become its Achilles’ heel.”

During the 7th century many Greek philosophers began to consider a more materialistic view of the world. They grew interested in sailing, astronomy, mathematics, and geography. “They wanted to show that thunderbolts and lightning were not arbitrary whims of Zeus, but expressions of fundamental physical laws,” Armstrong explains. Philosophers and theologians began to apply reason to the truths of faith; a methodology that Armstrong suggests would eventually lead to their undoing.

Centuries later, discoveries in mathematics, astronomy, and physics — by Copernicus, Kepler, and Brahe — were still being viewed through the lens of God. Kepler believed that “Geometry was God’s language.” Other great minds of the 17th and 18th centuries — the likes of Galileo and Newton — continued to mold scientific discoveries from the clay of divinity. Philosopher and theologian alike were determined to embody the new sciences as the work of God.

Armstrong walks the reader through the influences of Descartes, Pascal, and Locke; men who also found that “the natural world gave ample evidence for God.” She quotes Pascal stating, “Christianity was about to make a serious mistake.” Many theologians wanted to bring the clarity of the sciences into the Christian discourse, but as Pascal pointed out, “A God who was merely the ‘author of mathematical truths and of the order of the elements’ could bring no light to the darkness and pain of human existence.”

The Church would find itself in the unenviable position of defending the literal inerrancy of its texts and doctrines. The sacred mythos and ekstasi of antiquity were fading. By the late 18th century, “Reason was the only path to truth.” Armstrong tells us that for the first time there arose a divisive “polarity of natural versus supernatural.” With such tumult came vulnerability. The stage was now set. In November, 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Enter Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionary biologist and author of many ground-breaking works of science. His latest offering, The Greatest Show on Earth, is for Dawkins a well-deserved return to his roots. Far from the full-frontal assault on religion and belief in God found in The God Delusion, this new work is instead an updated exploration of the evidence confirming evolution by natural selection. Dawkins begins profoundly confident, “We don’t need fossils, the case for evolution is watertight without them.” Which is why, he continues, “it is paradoxical to use gaps in the fossil record as though they were evidence against evolution.”

item of interest…
The Root of All Evil? (cover)

A beautiful new digital transfer from the master, with new artwork and special features. In this two-part documentary, Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins examines how religious faith is gaining ground in the face of rational, scientific truth. The program takes you to some of the world’s religious hot-spots. Dawkins meets with religious leaders and their followers, as well as scientists and skeptics to examine the power of religion. More…
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The Greatest Show on Earth is a delicious buffet of evolutionary facts. Among them is the remarkable tale of whales and dolphins. As fascinating as it is that evolution began selecting for adaptations that would bring the ancestors of these creatures ashore during the Ordovician Period, (510–439 mya), it is even more fascinating that some of these land mammals evolved back to the sea! Before molecular genetics, the whale and dolphin family tree remained enigmatic. The nature of these peaceful sea dwellers likened them to mammals, with live births, air breathing, and vestiges of terrestrial limbs. However, as Dawkins explains, “molecular genetic evidence shows that the closest living cousins of the whales are hippos,” which evolved from sea, to land, to sea again.

In another remarkable story, Dawkins untangles the recurrent laryngeal nerves. Two of the many cranial nerves begin at the cranial stem and head toward their final destination in the larynx. One of them, as we would expect, takes the short direct route. The other takes a seemingly ludicrous excursion south, through the chest cavity, below the heart, makes a u-turn, and comes right back up to terminate at the larynx. Dawkins can’t help but remark, “If you think of it as the product of design, the recurrent laryngeal nerve is a disgrace.”

If however one examines this phenomenon with evolutionary eyes, we learn that our aquatic ancestor’s embryonic brachial arches formed gills as well as the ventral aorta. As these features evolved, the connections were maneuvered to facilitate new features. Instead of altering the laryngeal nerve path to a more direct route (thereby avoiding disgrace), it was pushed aside during the transition and there it remained. What we’re left with today is our own comically circuitous laryngeal nerve route. The laryngeal nerve is an example of history, not design.

Dawkins’ excitement for these evolutionary narratives is at its peak with his impassioned explanation of the crucial Lenski experiments. Bacteriologist Richard Lenski and his colleagues at Michigan State University have been conducting experiments that are a “beautiful demonstration of evolution in action.” Beginning in 1988, the Lenski team has followed the evolutionary lineages of 12 separate populations of the bacterium Escherichia coli. For bacteria, generations are measured in hours or even minutes, making them the perfect organism for evolutionary studies. These generational flasks of E coli also contain a carefully controlled brew of nutrients, primarily glucose, providing researchers the ability to tinker with the population’s capacity to process its food. Right around 33,000 generations, one of the 12 lineages suddenly exploded in population density by more than six fold over the other 11 lineages. To use Dawkins’ own vernacular, this one lineage “suddenly went berserk.”

This sudden dramatic growth was astonishing, and the explanation for it is breathtaking. Although the “broth” in each flask was primarily glucose, it contained other nutrients as well, one of which was citrate. But E. coli cannot process citrate as food, unless it mutates, which is exactly what it did. It changed the rules. It developed the ability to eat citrate. It evolved. This lineage, from so simple a beginning, had had enough of the restricted glucose diet, and figured out how to eat citrate!

Dawkins continues with more ineffable examples of evolution in action. Trees grow constantly taller at enormous evolutionary cost in their competitive fight for sunlight. Ichneumon wasps lay their eggs in the paralyzed yet still living bodies of caterpillars so that the new larvae have instant access to a sustainable food supply. (An inconceivably torturous methodology no compassionate designer would employ).

The Greatest Show on Earth is a straightforward and inspiring exegesis of evolution by means of natural selection. It is by no means overtly anti-creation. Dawkins does not rail against the book of Genesis. He doesn’t need to. He need only explain Darwin’s theory of incremental steps trudging mindlessly through time.

Yet the theory of evolution is more than that. Darwin’s revelation imparted something well beyond common ancestry and natural selection. He wrenched darkness from our eyes to illuminate a process of thought, an entirely new way of thinking about the world around us. There is a greater truth in the knowledge and understanding of evolutionary theory than there is in evolution alone.

Karen Armstrong writes with subtle sorrow for the lost mythos of antiquity, for the Ancient Mysteries, for the Pythagorean initiations, and for the Greek ekstasis. She shuns the modern anthropomorphic God of Creation and rejects the notion of inerrant religious texts. She writes, “The result is that many of us have been left stranded with an incoherent concept of God.”

The reader senses her longing for a deeper more transcendent truth, for mankind’s earliest experience with the divine before the spiritually narrowing notion of a supernatural Creator. She admires the ancient philosophies and the concept of connectedness. Of Aristotle she writes, “His biological research was a spiritual exercise.” Although Armstrong still clings to the occasional supernatural supposition, she passionately embraces a rich and fulfilling idea of oneness with nature and the universe.

At the same time, Richard Dawkins teaches us that all life evolved from the simplest forms and shares genetic ancestry with every other living thing from apes and birds to insects and oak trees, an ancestry shared with life forms extinct for a billion years. There is most assuredly a deep sense of the unmistakable connectedness through all of life in his narrative. Is there any room then to consider that these two authors are perhaps speaking of something far more similar than we may have first thought? Do the simple and graceful facts of The Greatest Show on Earth in any subtle way connect the dots to a more transcendent truth, to a kind of ekstasis from pre-modern philosophies that Armstrong yearns for in The Case for God? “One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of.” Yes, those words come from Armstrong, not Dawkins.

If we pause for only a moment to consider, among other things, the sprinkling of heavy dust from long forgotten supernova resting gently within us; if we consider quantum entanglement, singularities and super strings; and if we consider the quiet genetic code of ancestors extinct for a billion years still written in our hundred trillion cells; does it not seem, as Socrates might have phrased it, that no matter how much we think we know, there actually is a more transcendent truth? Is there not grandeur in this view?


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In this week’s Skepticblog post, Daniel Loxton honors Robynn “Swoopy” McCarthy as one of the definitive faces of skepticism. Swoopy appears in the new “I’M A SKEPTIC” series of graphic banners on skeptic.com promoting skeptical activists who are making a difference in the world of skepticism and critical thinking.

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34 Comments »

34 Comments

  1. Al Cannistraro says:

    I’d like to see Kenneth Grubbs review “Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe,” by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman.

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Al, I have seen the book, and sadly, not read it as yet. Perhaps your encouragement will push me over the figurative edge in that regard.

  2. frank says:

    dear Kenneth,

    i think that you are overly rejoiced re Dawkins tales of evidence.

    to take the case of E. Coli: if the ability to metabolise citrate was at all pesent in E. coli before the experiment (as i understand that indeed it was, though to a limited degree) then we merely have another example of natural selection – not! evolution

    best regards,

    frank

    • John Beck says:

      I am afraid I do not understand how something can be an example of natural selection but not be an example of evolutionary biology? I thought that natural selection was one process under the umbrella of evolutionary biology.

      I am just a poor Astrophysicist, but it seems that an analogous statement in my field might be “We merely have another example of Newton’s first law – not classical mechanics”

    • Steve says:

      Having just finished The Greatest Show on Earth, my recollection is that the E. Coli did NOT previously have the ability to metabolize citrate. It was able to metabolize glucose mixed with the citrate. I know it’s not the official source (I don’t want to go read the whole paper!), but here’s a quote from the Wikipedia entry: “Wild type E. coli cannot transport citrate across the cell membrane to the cell interior (where it could be incorporated into the citric acid cycle) when oxygen is present. “ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._coli_long-term_evolution_experiment)

    • Chuck Glenn says:

      If you read Dawkins’s book, you’ll find that the ability to metabolize citrate required two mutations. One mutation was accidental without any negative consequences, and the second mutation wouldn’t have offered any advantage without the first. But over time, one population DID happen to evolve both mutations, unlocking the ability to metabolize citrate. The end result is that random mutations can confer negative, positive, or neutral survival traits on a population. That demonstrated natural selection which supports Darwinian evolution. It also handily demonstrate the fallacy of the “irreducible complexity” arguments.

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Frank, Thank you for your remarks. If I may, please help me find the more subtle distinction between natural selection and evolution, as used in the context of my review. The observed phenomena was breathtaking in its scope. But if there is a distinction I should be clearer about, I’d like to hear it. Thank you again for commenting.

  3. Bob says:

    “If we pause for only a moment to consider, among other things, the sprinkling of heavy dust from long forgotten supernova resting gently within us; if we consider quantum entanglement, singularities and super strings; and if we consider the quiet genetic code of ancestors extinct for a billion years still written in our hundred trillion cells; does it not seem, as Socrates might have phrased it, that no matter how much we think we know, there actually is a more transcendent truth? Is there not grandeur in this view?”

    A fine piece of rhetoric indeed, but notice that “transcendent truth” is equivocal. For Armstrong it means SUPERnatural and for Dawkins (if he used the word) it would mean a natural fact we do not know yet! You cannot bring the two positions together by equivocation.

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Bob, Thank you for your remarks; and thank for “the fine piece of rhetoric” comment. I agree. I don’t feel that I was attempting to firmly equivocate these two works, insomuch as to blur the lines. If looking at world views in a slightly different light was achieved, then I’m a happy guy. Thank you again.

  4. Jeanie says:

    Waxing poetic does not reconcile two diametrically opposed views as this book review attempts. I am not impressed by emotionalism. I think that is how we got religion in the first place!

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Jeanie, Thank you so much for your reaction to this review. Looking for the common thread in these two pieces was a fascinating challenge. The hope was to get people to ponder just how “diametrically opposed” they really are. Those willing to consider these ideas outside their comfort zone may be surprised by the Armstrong piece. Thank you again for your remarks.

  5. Susan Fiore says:

    What Karen Armstrong describes as ‘religion as action’ is Anglicanism at its best. Although it has become infected over time by those who insist on doctrinal purity, Anglicans disagree about nearly everything except doing liturgy. It’s the one thing that has held us together; the current threats to the Anglican Communion are coming from politically conservative groups who seem to be motivated more by their political ideology than by their religious beliefs. They will be the death of us. N.B. The Church of England holds Charles Darwin in such high esteem that his tomb has a place of honor in Westminster Abbey in that area set aside specifically as the burial site of esteemed scientists, including Sir Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, James Maxwell and others.

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Susan, Thank you for your insight. Karen Armstrong’s experience makes for inspired reading, regardless of one’s world view.

  6. Bob says:

    This review reads a little desperate.

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Ouch! Stretching boundaries can be highly entertaining. I would have hoped “desperate” to be further down your list. Thank you however for taking the time to provide feedback. I’ll remember it well.

  7. Brandon says:

    I have not read all of the book by Karen Armstrong, only a chapter. I saw it as hoping for something trans-personal. That may not be the best, or correct, term but it strikes me as more accurate than supernatural. She uses the analogy of a dancer practicing until they are able to perform something that seems impossible to most of us (and I am blown away by great ballet). She describes the focus and intensity that occur in some activities we engage in, and how each action is not consciously engaged but emerges as a result of practice. It may be an argument for some supernatural being, but if it can be seen as advocacy for the sort of personal behavior and practice that yields that fluid moment and that state of awareness that accompanies it, isn’t there merit to that?
    Is there not any place where the search for meaning and connection for the two authors intersect? Or is the commonality of the pursuit of connections all they have in common?
    I ask this because I have been reading lots of skeptical and empirical thinkers, and have a sense that there are areas of our thinking and experience that will not submit to quantification. By no means am I suggesting that this area is a magical unicorn or its brethren, but the more synergistic aspects of our thinking and experience. I think it is this kind of experience, dreams that yield an idea that we were not aware of before going to sleep and similar, that lead people to magical thinking. These moments seem to come from some other at times. Even knowing that there are certain neuro-chemical states that can account for particular emotional responses does nothing to change the impact of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. Or the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth for that matter (for me at least). Long winded, I know. Just pawing around in the dark for a good answer that isn’t a unicorn.
    One further note, if Armstrong is advocating a non-dogmatic, non-literal approach to the superhero other, could that not be similar to the totality of the Universe? Isn’t that the incredible scope that Dawkins details, a long and vast series of connections and complexities?
    Now I sound like a sop…

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Brandon, Thank you for taking the time to comment. I am as skeptical as they come, and looking for the commonalities in these two works was a rewarding journey. The search for truth is a moving target, and the kinds of remarks and comments contained in this forum means that there is some hope in the world for that search. Thank you again.

    • Geezerdaddy says:

      We are swimming in our culture, a sea of Judeao-Christian, Greco-Roman thought, traditions, and foolishness. Our poetic, artistic, culturally significant responses must rely on the cultural background to make sense of it, even in the light of new, groundbreaking, and unarguably correct ideas.
      As an atheist, the lack of certainty of a universe without god, can cause a sentimental nostalgia. The only cure I have found is in the grandeur of the universe, in the growing knowledge of scientific understanding, which includes the nearly breathtaking audacity of the truth Darwin began.
      Can’t wait to read both books.

  8. Janet Holmes says:

    I’m sorry for Karen Armstrong’s loss, but I don’t really understand what it is she wants. I wish magic worked but I know it doesn’t and I have to come to terms with that reality. Coming to terms with our place in the universe – small and insignificant but wondrously complicated- is something we all have to do, it’s called growing up. Perhaps Karen should try it?. There is no magic sky-daddy who created the world especially for her and loves her unconditionally, only the entire astonishing universe which she will have to make do with. I feel sufficiently blessed.

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Janet, Thank you for taking the time to comment on my reviews. I find your remarks right on the money, although as you and I both believe, I don’t think Karen Armstrong has an affinity for a “sky-daddy”. In fact, this book spells that out pretty clearly. I would ask you to think about one of your comments though that struck me as the most interesting. You said that you “wish magic worked”. I’ve always found this intriguing; you see, I don’t. Magic, to me, subtracts from the awe. If our universe turned out to be the work of a sky-daddy, I would be thoroughly dismayed. The awe would be gone. Think about it, and thank you so much for your reaction to this piece.

  9. shiranaize says:

    I feel the need to play devil’s advocate because it frustrates me to read other people’s comments that show such a silly and high-handed opinion against all religious behavior. Especially the ones who are insulting other people’s (Karen Armstrong) opinions or arguments without actually hearing or reading them firsthand. The only person who commented who mentions her actual writing suggested that her view is more of a pragmatic religious opinion than a theological one. According to other people’s description of her writing, she seems to be doing a decent job arguing that the theological one is where the whole infallible fanatic mindset comes in, which is the part that most atheists, agnostics, etc. don’t like. In fact, an argument about connectedness and feelings of what is sometimes called a “transcendent” or “transpersonal” emotion have some long-running scientific research and theory backing them up. Some of the founding names of psychology and sociology, such as Durkheim (an atheist) and William James, are the ones who laid such groundwork. If you are going to condemn such indulgence of one’s desire to overcome alienation and loneliness, then you should probably condemn all alcohol and recreational drug use. Heck, you should condemn good music and poetry while your at it too, because it is often misleading about the empirical understanding of the world. In all fairness though, I don’t care to converse with someone about “how fucking high/drunk they were last night” or “how inspirational their belief in God is.” People should be allowed to have their vices as long as they don’t endanger others (drunk driving, religious fanaticism, etc.). After all, I know of no one who can claim not to have an indulgence or a vice. Camus’s “The Fall” goes a long way to undermine the idea of self-righteousness. Then again, maybe being deprived of the feeling of communion offered by religious behavior causes some to escape into the vice of an automatic self-righteousness (ironic, seeing as how that is originally a religious behavior). I apologize for the causticity, but it seems like someone needs to make a fair case for the underdog(of this community, not in the larger world).

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Shiranaize, Thank you for taking the time to write such a well constructed response, causticity aside. It seems to me that many of these arguments in the negative are arguing Karen Armstrong’s reputation more than they are the actual book. I found her writing to be wonderfully cogent and concise. Having read the book, I would characterize Armstrong as more “spiritual” than “religious”. And I think there is an important distinction. Thank you again for your comments.

  10. Kenneth Grubbs says:

    First, if I may, it is profoundly satisfying to illicit well constructed responses to this somewhat unique “dual review”. It was my intention from the start to stretch the limits of each of these books just enough to ponder the potential commonalities. Looking for the common thread within two pieces of work as thematically differentiated as these was an enjoyable challenge. I feel somewhat satisfied that the goal was achieved, although as you can see from these responses, with varying degrees of success. If this review was cause for anyone to think just slightly out of their comfort zone, then its goals were achieved. Again, thank you for the personally rewarding remarks, both for and against my supposition.

  11. Bob says:

    “Looking for the common thread within two pieces of work as thematically differentiated as these was an enjoyable challenge.”

    I suppose everything is like everything in some way. I still charge you with the fallacy of equivocation.

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Bob, Although I can appreciate the perspective that views my syllogism’s terminology morphing to fit my needs ……… I would feel much better if you viewed that as creatively “stretching the boundaries” for the sake of the supposition, and excuse the strict interpretation of the fallacy of equivocation. But that’s just me.

  12. Gerald Guild says:

    The way the mind works is intriguing isn’t it! The more I think, discuss, and write about the confluence of spirituality and science, the more awestruck I become. Dawkins epitomizes rational thought – and I find the understanding of the world I have gained (in no small part due to the writings of Darwin, Dawkins, Gould, Tyson, Bryson, etc.) has stirred me deeply and fostered a spiritual connection with this rare Earth and all my cousins. Monism, rationalism, and materialism are the exception – dualism, superstition, etc. rule the day. The human mind seems drawn to the latter (well, like a moth to a flame). It’s really hard to change this in people using logical processes. Perhaps through establishing a spiritual connection with the world (through understanding it), we can impart more critical thinking.

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Gerald, Thank you for your well thought out remarks. Its always interesting that language, the very thing that gave rise to our species progress, can still inflict confusion so readily. The very world “spiritual” can have wildly differing definitions and connotations. I think Dawkins definition of spiritual can be close to “awe”, and I don’t disagree.

      • Chet Jones says:

        Hi,
        Quickly, just wanted to chime in on the subject of language: it is the precise reason that people are drawn to dualism like a moth to the flame. A double-edged sword indeed!
        Best,
        Chet

  13. Russel Moffat says:

    First of all Kenneth thanks so much for this review. As a newcomer to this site I found it a breath of fresh air. However, some of the comments in other posts remind me of why I have stopped going on Richard Dawkins website! I am a serving clergyman in the Church of Scotland who seems to have incurable religious/spiritual tendencies but an absolute hunger and fascination for science (evolution in particular). Last year I published a provocative and polemical response to some of the rhetoric of the “Four Horsemen”. However, after I got all the angst off my chest,(it had been building for a few years!) I argued for dialogue and shared action between atheists and religious believers for the well-being of our planet. It is pleasing to see more agnostics beginning to make themselves known and of more works by atheists on issues of “spirituality” going to print. Many religious believers and atheists don’t really “get” one another. I think we should try to change that. Your review is an interesting and thought provoking start, and offers us some material for exploration and discussion.

    • Dave Mallon says:

      Hi Russel, I’m sorry to hear that commenters on the RDF site, and perhaps this site, are driving you away. Given your occupation, and accomplishments, I should imagine that your contributions would be extremely valuable.

      I’m curious as to what it is that you find discouraging on these sites. I’ve just looked up and read the on-line part of your polemic, and there seems little doubt that you can hold your own in these on-line skirmishes.

      I’m not sure I understand the rationale of trying to bring the two sides in this debate together, which seems to be what your comment seeks to promote. On an individual level in every-day life, I doubt there is any measurable distinction between the religious and the atheist. On a philosophical level, I think the views are diametrically opposed, as to an atheist, the introduction of the supernatural reduces all the beauty and awe of our universe to naught.

    • Kenneth Grubbs says:

      Russell, Thank you so much for your remarks. The review was intended to experiment with “crossing the line” a little, in both directions. I believe it worked.

      The more dogmatic ideology that exists for either side, the more difficult it becomes to reconcile words like “spiritual”. Its a land mine, and its a lot of fun. Getting people to explore their personal beliefs and world views with just a slight shift in their perspective can be transforming. Evolution is a spiritual experience to me. But first I have to present a glossary of terms before the arrows begin flying. Thanks again for your comments.

  14. Russel Moffat says:

    Hi Dave thanks for your comments and questions. I guess I’m just tired of the “debate” where it sometimes feels that everybody is talking and no one is listening. My book was a response to “attitudes” not just the content of some atheistic critique of religion. Yes I took the gloves off and therefore will probably be criticised for doing what I’m objecting to. That is why, for me the last section in the book was necessary.

    I make it perfectly clear that religion faces huge challenges in the scientific age and major reform is a moral and intellectual necessity. Of course, as Darwin always realised, public confrontation often has the opposite effect on the “faithful”

    However, if, as even the “Four Horseman” all concede, religion is going to continue into the 21st century what are we going to do about that?

    I’m mindful of comments from Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Michael Shermer, and Michael Ruse which give me hope regarding the possible emergence of a scientifically informed faith, and the constructing of alliances between like minded people in a world that badly needs cooperation at all levels.

    You are right that at a philosophical level we appear to have “diametrically opposed” views but instead of walking away from each other, or fighting each other, could we explore the possibility of finding some common ground however small whilst accepting differences. Is there pluralism in skepticism or are we all required to be atheists?

    I thought Kenneth’s review of Dawkins and Armstrong was interesting and thoughtful (and I might add very fair to Armstrong given other comments I’ve read about her) hence my first post.

  15. Kenneth Grubbs says:

    As this week’s edition of eSkeptic tips its hat to the coming edition, I wanted to thank all those involved. Thank you to Michael and Will at Skeptic for their support, encouragement, and the very opportunity to be apart of something truly special.

    And most of all, thank you to the many folks who took the time to write well reasoned, cogent, and thoughtful remarks. Stretching boundaries is how we learn and how we challenge even our own beliefs. Your participation in this exercise has been rewarding not only for others, but for me personally; so again I say thank you.

  16. Susan Fiore says:

    US geneticist to receive $1.5m prize in religion
    By Brett Zongker
    Associated Press / March 26, 2010

    WASHINGTON — A onetime priest who became an evolutionary geneticist and molecular biologist and helped scientifically refute creationism with his research was honored yesterday with one of the world’s top religion prizes.

    Francisco J. Ayala, 76, a US citizen originally from Spain, will receive the 2010 Templeton Prize, valued at $1.53 million, the John Templeton Foundation said at the National Academy of Sciences.

    It is the largest monetary award given each year to an individual and honors someone who made exceptional contributions to affirm spirituality. Officials increase the value each year to exceed the Nobel Prize.

    “I see religion and science as two of the pillars on which American society rests,’’ Ayala told the Associated Press, saying the United States is one of the world’s most religious countries. “We have these two pillars not talking, not seeing they can reinforce each other.’’

    Ayala is a notable choice because he opposes the entanglement of science and religion. The former Dominican priest is adamant that science and religion do not contradict each other.

    “If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters, and each is essential to human understanding,’’ he said in remarks prepared for the acceptance ceremony.

    Ayala is a top professor of biological sciences at the University of California, Irvine. His pioneering genetic research led to revelations that could help develop cures for malaria and other diseases.

    Ayala plans to give the prize money to charity, likely for education.

    © Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

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