Taking Liberties: A Book We Need Right Now

So you may have noticed lately that the right-wing ratfuckers in state governments are busy trying to roll us back to the Dark Ages. Women aren’t people, they’re “hosts” to those precious babies that will be cherished so long as they’re in the womb; once they’re out, both host and infant will be despised as social parasites if they have the audacity to be unmarried and/or poor. Some jackass is trying to slip prayer into schools by forcing teachers to read congressional prayers. In my former home state of Arizona, the frothing fundies boiled over, and decided to give religious people the right to discriminate against gays, because apparently, refusing to let them patronize your business is an act of worship. Other states have jumped on that horrible bandwagon. And let’s not forget the Russia-envy they’ve got going on. They’ve got a stiffy for totalitarian shitlords who hate on the same groups they do.

Outraged? Good. Here’s a book that will help you channel that rage more productively: Robert Boston’s Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do.

Taking Liberties Cover

This is the sort of book you pointedly give to the fuckwads in your family who insist their religious beliefs and practices be made mandatory for everyone, because freedom. It won’t scare them away by mentioning atheists right up front, either.

Robert Boston’s thesis is simple: “Religion is not the problem. Fundamentalist religion that seeks to merge with political power and impose its dogma on the unwilling is the problem. I have a big one with anyone who considers the raw power of government an appropriate vehicle for evangelism.”

Preach it, Brother Boston!

We see that religious freedom at this country’s founding meant government out of religion, full stop. Baptists were especially keen to separate church from state, with no room left for declaring this a Christian nation. These fire-and-brimstone Baptists were all about freedom, genuine freedom, of religion – and that included Jews, Muslims, polytheists, and atheists. They were better men than the ones preaching hate in the name of religion from the Statehouse floor these days.

Robert shows how court cases placed certain restrictions on religious practice, of necessity: “You have the right to believe whatever you want, but… your ability to act on those beliefs may be subject to certain restrictions.” And he boils the balance between faith and freedom to this: “Does the private choice of another person prevent you from attending the house of worship of your choice? Does it stop you from joining your co-religionists in prayer and worship? Does it require you to bow before an alien god?” No? Then cease being an overbearing asshat.

He highlights church interference in health care, education, civil rights, and politics. “In this country where the right of conscience is precious, all religious groups have the right to be heard – but none have the right to be obeyed.” Can I get a hell yes?

Robert boils it down to a power grab. These churches want our money, and our obedience, and if we want to remain the secular nation that’s always been a beacon of religious and political freedom in the world, we need to remove the theocrats from power. We need to oppose their agenda. Our fellow Americans need to realize that religious freedom does not mean that the people with the theocratic ideals and barbaric notions about women, LGBTQ folk, sex, science, and education get to have everything their way. Just because you’re religious doesn’t mean what you’re doing is right. And those 18th century clerics would be the first to fight the merging of government and church.

This book goes a long way toward ensuring we have the awareness and ability to stop and reverse this trend toward theocracy.

How Religion Targets the Vulnerable: Beyond Belief

Give me a genie and three wishes, and I’d probably ask for the following: an end to poverty worldwide, give people the desire and ability to protect and restore the environment, and an end to religion.

Religion is at the root of much of what’s wrong with the world. When we go chasing after invisible gods, all of our worst human tendencies remain, but are given God’s stamp of approval. I’m sure you’ve noticed how what God wants so often matches the desires and prejudices of the person saying what God wants. That, or they’re parroting what the people who wish to retain power over them tell them God wants. Either way, the desires always track back to people.

Image is the cover of Beyond Belief

And in Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, we see just how destructive and devious religion can be. This book is full of slices of fundamentalist life from a broad range of faiths. The editors, Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, wanted to explore the commonalities between women who found themselves sucked (or born) in to extremely restrictive religions. They weren’t intending “to refute or belittle religion.”

They didn’t have to. The religions do that quite well all by themselves.

One common theme I noticed, and that infuriated me, was the way all of these sects, from Judaism to fundie Christian to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Islam and more, preyed on vulnerability.

Within hours of the Twin Towers falling, members of a cult were at a vigil on a college campus only a few miles away. They weren’t praying for the victims so much as seeking people whose world had just come crashing down, and preying on them. Spreading Jesus was more important than rendering aid.

Another cult used a young woman’s intense desire to heal her mentally ill brother to suck her in, turning her into another money-collecting drone for the cult.

Women searching for clear, simple rules to navigate complicated lives. Women trying to overcome anxiety and depression. Women trying their best to be what pastors, parents, prophets and parishioners want. Women needing to feel loved and safe and whole. Religions descended on them like hyenas, tore them apart while promising to put them together, and spit out the pieces. Taught them to fear the wrath of God and hell so viscerally that they would do anything for salvation. Taught them they were worthless and damned if they strayed from that incredibly narrow path.

The stories these women tell grab you by the gray matter and demand you pay attention, no matter how awful they become. We sit in a mortuary chapel with Naomi Williams, surrounded by the stench of decayed human bodies, as the pastor conducts the congregation’s regular service and the parents lie.

Why couldn’t these people, who had not the slightest hesitation about telling their children that they would burn forever in hell when they died, be honest about the real-world manifestations of death? Here, surely, was the real “end” of man – dead, breaking down into volatile organic compounds, a mortician’s project. Talk about a powerful object lesson. But all we got by way of explanation was dead fish.”

We kneel on the carpet in a pastor’s office with Pamela Helberg, as her father and pastor pray “the demons of homosexuality” away.

If life begins with the splitting of a cell, my lesbian life began that night in Pastor Gary’s study. I was not made free from my burdens, but I split into two selves. My inner and outer being were forced to separate, setting me on a long and arduous path to rediscover what would make me whole again.”

We stand in Leila Khan’s room as she rejects an arranged marriage, and faces her mother’s wrath:

You have disappointed us so much. If you refuse to marry Amir, I will curse you so that you never succeed in life. You will fail and fail, and when you come crawling back to me, begging for forgiveness, you know what I will do to you that day?” She stared at me with unblinking eyes. “I will kick you so hard in your face, you will never be able to get up.”

These women all overcame their indoctrination and have gone on to live rich, fulfilling lives. These glimpses into their lives before freedom are infuriating, inspiring, and always riveting. They’ve given me a deeper understanding of life within the confines of a constricting religion. That little piece of them will always be with me.

The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Book That Triggered Mild PTSD In Me

There aren’t many books that have me lowering the temperature of my bathwater for fear of triggering flashbacks to severe burns I’ve never actually suffered. Actually, there’s only been one: this one.

Book cover of Last Days of St. Pierre, showing a photograph of Mont Pelee in eruption.

Ernest Zebrowski Jr.’s The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives.

Remember La Catastrophe? Yeah? Forget it. This is your book about Mont Peleé.

For one thing, the geology’s much better. Pretty amazing that it took a guy with what appears to be a mostly physics and math background to give us some of the geology of this eruption, but there you go. I would’ve liked a lot more, but I didn’t feel cheated. There were a few places where the fact he’s not a geologist by trade comes through – he uses an earlier date for the beginning of plate tectonics than seems to be current consensus, and his description of the Atlantic plate as “squeezing a huge bulge of hot magma toward the surface” made me go nah – but it’s okay. He gets it good enough, and he actually includes some geology, including the geologic setting of Martinique, which is a lot more than I could say about bloody geology Professor Scarth.

In fact, for the most part, he takes us through the geology from the point of view of the folks dealing with an alarming, nasty, and new example of it. After giving us the gist of what we know now, he goes back and shows us what no one knew then. We experience this terrifying eruptive sequence from the perspective of those trying to figure it out. We’re told – well, mostly shown, Dr. Zebrowski’s quite good at that – what they knew. Not much. They had no real idea what a volcano like Peleé can do. So they made some terrible mistakes.

Here’s the beauty of Dr. Zebrowski’s writing: they’re mistakes. He really delved the minds and histories of Governor Mouttet and members of his short-lived science commission, men like Gaston Landes. He read everything they’d produced that had survived, put himself in their shoes, at their time, and shows us they did the best they could. He writes with incredible empathy for pretty much everyone, with the exception of the bureaucrats back in France who refused all responsibility, and the new governor, who got 2,000 more people killed through inexcusable incompetence.

Remember Father Mary’s death? You won’t see people bringing a dying priest water called stupid for forgetting footwear. All of the people who suffered through this are treated with the utmost empathy, and honesty.

Now, that’s not to say Dr. Zebrowski’s gentle. He’s brutally clear about what a volcano can do to people. It never felt like he was dwelling on grotesque details for the sake of salaciousness, but he didn’t discreetly shroud the scenes of devastation in euphemism. No, you will come away with a thorough understanding of what a pyroclastic flow does to human bodies, and why. You won’t be able to read these parts without an adamantium stomach. If you faint when Trauma: Life in the ER or similar comes on, skip those pages. I can tolerate a lot of gore, but there were some seriously rough times – and, like I said, I had a hard time taking a hot bath afterward. Steam burns are awful.

There’s plenty else: the excellent sketches of the people and the city, the skillful tale-telling, and the perfectly-chosen passages written by the people of Martinique as the disaster unfolded. Mont Peleé is assigned no malice – it’s a volcano, not a villain, and is treated as such. We explore its slopes with some very brave souls. We uncover its secrets along with them. And we are given explanations, satisfying if not thoroughly detailed ones, for the various phenomena surrounding the eruptions.

The book doesn’t end with Peleé’s May 8th eruption, but goes on, following the first scientists to arrive. And lemme tell you: those dudes had some adventures. A whole new book could be dedicated to them alone, and perhaps someday, I will write it. Dr. Zebrowski’s laid a good foundation.

In the epilogue, we see St. Pierre today: a shadow of its former self, built on and of ruins, but still lovely, and we know why people would make a reasoned, rational decision to live under that threat.

I’d still like to see a popular book with a stronger focus on the geology, but this one does reasonably well in that department, and has much else to recommend it besides. It has my gold seal of approval.

A horribly crafted seal of approval, which is a gold circle that says "Seal of Approval," and has an awfully edited picture of my smiling face in the middle.

The book’s much better than the seal, never fear.

Crowdsourcing Books By and/or About Women and People of Color in the Geosciences

You know those moments where you suddenly notice the ism in the background? Had one recently meself. I spent a few weeks going through every single geology book available for Kindle on Amazon. I downloaded a ton of samples. And then I started sifting through them.

I noticed a few disturbing trends.

First, the samples are overwhelmingly by men. Not that this surprises me, but I’d hoped for a larger ratio of women. There were practically none. Hullo, background sexism!

A white peacock's gaudy display overshadows a peahen. Image courtesy Darkros via Wikimedia Commons.

A white peacock’s gaudy display overshadows a peahen. Image courtesy Darkros via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, the samples are overwhelmingly white. Again: disappointed but not surprised. Hullo, background racism!

A black swan lost in a crowd of white swans. Image courtesy Colin Smith via Geograph. Click photo for details.

A black swan lost in a crowd of white swans. Image courtesy Colin Smith via Geograph. Click photo for details.

Third, most of the books by women are either for children, or they’re fiction. That one really got to me. And it got me to thinking of cultural assumptions.

I have to wonder how many books on the earth sciences by women are overlooked by editors unless they’re in the traditionally female-dominated realms of education, or a good lady-like pursuit such as literature?

So I’m sure, although I know of no study that specifically proves, there’s an unconscious bias that editors have that goes some way toward explaining why the kids books and geology-themed fiction are much more likely to be by female authors, and why there are even fewer earth science books by women than I’d expect even with a lower ratio of women in STEM careers.

Even worse, I have to wonder if my unconscious bias has skewed that ratio even more in my samples. I’ll have to go back and look. One of the things I’ve learned palling around with social justice people is that we have to be aware of what our culture has wrought – and mine has so effectively taught me to overlook women that I do it without thinking, even though I am a woman.

Time that stopped. Takes effort, and a conscious commitment to noticing what culture wants us to ignore, aside from a few tokens so it can feel great about itself.

So here’s your mission, should you choose to accept it: if you know of earth science books by women and/or people of color, tell me all about them. Let’s get a list going.

And let’s see about making editors aware of their blind spot. It’s not that they’re being deliberate arseholes (in some cases), I’m sure, but our culture has spent generations telling us that it’s white dudes, usually older white ones, who do the science, so the women and people of color become practically invisible.

We need to be aware of that blind spot, and compensate by actively forcing ourselves to see. Otherwise, things won’t ever change. And people who cold have expanded our vista beyond our imaginings will remain overlooked.

We can do better. We have to do better.

Happiness is The Happy Atheist: A Review

The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers

 

I should probably begin this review by admitting that PZ Myers was my gateway drug to atheism, and some of the essays in this book helped me become the type of unapologetic atheist that haunts the nightmares of deeply religious people. I stumbled upon Pharyngula during a determined effort to decrease the deficits in my scientific knowledge, specifically biology. I learned there that this squidgy, squishy, ofttimes smelly branch of science was actually quite a lot less boring than I’d believed. I also learned that, contrary to what society had shrilled at me for over 30 years, you didn’t have to be a despairing, suicidal, evil, and unpleasant tool of Satan in order to be an atheist. You could, in fact, be charming, witty, rapier-tongued, wicked-smart, adventurous, full of lust for living, in awe of this grand old world, and… actually happy. Not to mention completely Satan-free.

This book might just be the gateway for a great many other people to become happy heathens as well.

For me, this book was a nice, concentrated dose of Pharyngula, from which many of the essays originated. I could catch up on some bits I’d missed, and enjoy old favorites (“The Courtier’s Reply” will remain an atheist classic for centuries to come, I like to think). The whole book rolls smoothly along, shading from religion and the excoriating thereof into the wonder and beauty, the exquisite truths, of science. All along the way, atheism is unapologetically presented. This isn’t an accommodationist’s book. No forelocks are tugged in due deference to religion; no beliefs quietly tip-toed around; no ugly bits of faith discreetly papered over or studiously ignored while a cringing case is made for atheists to please, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, be allowed a place at the table, maybe at the foot, or perhaps underneath it if actual atheists in actual chairs are offensive to delicate religious sensibilities.

No.

Religion is given no quarter within these pages. The concealer is scrubbed from all its pimples and warts; bandages ripped from its oozing sores; its sheep’s clothing stripped from the mangy, devious wolf* within. Religious people are treated with respect and compassion, as long as they’re not frauds and cons like Ken Ham, but religious beliefs are not spared.

I think you can get a sense of what they’re subjected to by this quote: “Religion is the Mega-Shark of culture.”

But it’s not all bashing Bible bashing beliefs. Myths about atheists are dispatched, and a whole new universe, free from superstition, is opened up. Unfettered by belief’s chains, we can explore, learn, grow, and savor. Science is celebrated. Lives free from faith are shown to be far from meaningless. And every page is suffused with PZ’s quirky, sometimes caustic, sense of humor.

This book made me a happy atheist indeed. Hopefully, it will do the same for you and yours.

The Happy Atheist book cover, which is a blue smiling Darwin fish.

 

*Apologies to wolves for the above analogy – they don’t deserve to be insulted so, but I’m afraid ebola doesn’t have a folk tale about it sneaking round under false pretenses

Can You Recommend a Good Petrology Book?

You know those times where your woeful ignorance rises up like someone in a slapstick comedy and smacks you right in the face? Yeah, this is one of those times. Some recent research (having nothing to do with Christianist textbooks – yet) has caused me to again confront the fact I know bugger-all about petrology.

It’s about bloody time I fixed that problem.

So, my darlings, can you recommend to me a good beginner’s book about petrology? Preferably one that gives good coverage to as many types as possible? Hopefully one under $50? Do you have favorite websites, sources and such? Tell me all about them! I promise to give you lovely results. Lockwood and I certainly get around enough to find you some gorgeous examples of petrology in action, and I’ve already got a piece I’m working on that’s all about garnets in rhyolite. Oh, indeed.

Image is a calico cat sleeping on petrology textbooks. Caption says,

Evelyn’s kitteh Samira, being a petrology cat. Caption by Lockwood DeWitt.

Thank you in advance! You know I couldn’t be the science writer I am without you. I never forget it!

Also, have some slapstick comedy. Just because.

A (Metaphorically) Magical Review of Dr. Offit’s Magnum Opus on Woo

Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine by Dr. Paul Offit.

Cover of Do You Believe in Magic. It has got all sorts of herbs emerging from a top hat. Very cute and clever.I have friends who drive me mad with alt med crapola. People who shun vaccines, people who chug mega-doses of Emergen-C (and catch colds regularly anyway – but still swear it worked!), who go on and on about natural this and herbal that, until I wish to scream. There aren’t enough links to enough studies to explain why I get heartily sick of this bullshit.

Fortunately, I can now direct them to download this quite-reasonably priced ($1.99 for Kindle, last I checked – yowza!) book by a man who 1. knows his shit, 2. thoroughly mucks out the bullshit, and 3. is just kind enough to the placebo effect of some alt med treatments to placate these people.

Those of you who’ve been in the trenches of the vaccine wars probably know Paul as one of the despised enemies of anti-vaxxers. This book is an excellent example of why they hate him: it’s clear, concise, and full of citations to studies that make it very, very difficult to counter him. Also, he’s fair almost to a fault. Alt-med? He’s tried it himself. He’s given things like glucosamine a spin. He’s had less-than-satisfactory experiences with conventional medicine, so he gets why you might like something different. Sure. But then he says, let’s look at the studies – and there we have bad news. No better than placebo. Oh, dear. Better stick with the stodgy stuff, then, unless your condition is amenable to treatment by placebo, in which case, alt-med yourself out (on the safe stuff, anyway).

That’s the book in a nutshell.

Within these pages, many darlings of the alt-med scene are given a harsh dose of reality. Fans of Dr. Mehmet Oz, Depak Chopra, Dr. Andrew Weil, Suzanne Somers, Stanislaw Burzynsky, Jenny McCarthy, Joe Mercola, and other such purveyors of woo will become distressed as their darlings are demolished. People who pop vitamins are in for some very severe shocks. Supplement sectarians are about to get a rude awakening. Most of the book is merciless, and rightly so.

Most of these fatal blows are delivered with calm precision and gentle reliance on the facts, but the message is driven home with the occasional zinger, like this (my favorite line in the book): “Unfortunately, Vitamin O [oxygen] users lacked the one thing necessary to extract oxygen from water: gills.” Beauty.

I felt he went a little – perhaps a lot – too easy on the purveyors of placebos at the end (a trait he shares, interestingly enough, with Mark Twain, who had a big softy for Christian Science for just that reason: the placebo effect). I’m afraid those prone to such things will seize upon this and shriek that their pet nostrum really and truly works. I would guide their attention to the paragraphs in the final section that throw a bucket of cold water over the love fest. These are the four ways Paul divides practitioners of placebo medicine from outright quacks. For those who are curious, or need the crash course as an immediate inoculation against woo for self or others, they are these:

“First, by recommending against conventional therapies that are helpful.” If it quacks that you don’t need that chemo, it’s a quack. Run.

Second, “by promoting potentially harmful therapies without adequate warning.” If it quacks that its horrid green goo is 1000% safe despite being full of arsenic, it’s a quack. Run.

Third, “by draining patients’ bank accounts.” If it quacks it can heal you, but needs extravagant amounts of money to do so, it’s a quack. Run.

Fourth, “by promoting magical thinking.” You know the drill by now.

After reading this book, I feel much better prepared for the next dissertation on the wonders of alt-med I’m subjected to. And I have a handy tome to hand them that may, just possibly, save their lives. At the very least, it should make them wiser about their medical choices, save them some coin, and promote some harmony between them and the skeptics in their lives. Not bad for one little book, eh?

Dr. Paul Offit is a gray-haired man with brainy-specs and a suit, posing at a podium, smiling the smile of a man who's quite famous and just a bit embarassed about it.

Dr. Paul Offit, bane of woo-meisters everywhere. Image courtesy Michael Spencer for the National Institutes of Health Record via Wikimedia Commons.

Dana’s Super-Gargantuan Guide to Atheist Books Suitable for Gift-Giving (Part II)

We covered a lot of territory with Part I of our super-duper guide, and there ain’t many shopping days left. But we’ve still time for more of the specialized stuffage. Let’s go!

Image shows a kitten perched on an open book, looking as if it's reading, with the caption "Reading Rainbow." History

 

Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

This is a sweeping study of religious doubt, spanning the Ancient Greeks up through the Jews, the Romans, and even Asian doubters. You’ll meet freethinkers you didn’t even know existed, from 600 BC until the present. This is a most helpful book for understanding that doubt isn’t a modern invention. History’s full o’ freethinkers, and we are in excellent company. There is a fine tradition of doubt behind us. This book demonstrates that doubt is part of our humanity. It’s a strangely comforting truth after doubt has been so demonized by demagogues for so very long.

Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby.

Did you know American history is full of freethinkers? No? Well, Susan Jacoby aims to remedy tha. This book covers the entire period of America’s history from the first European settlers to the present. It explores the important contributions secularists have made to movements such as Abolition and feminism. You’ll see the history of the culture wars beginning with the religious opposition to evolution, and be reminded that America, for all its devout citizens, has always been a land of freethinkers.

You should totally give this book to Uncle “America’s a Christian nation!” Ralph.

 

Culture Wars

 

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? by Greta Christina.

I can’t believe some of you thought I wouldn’t remember Greta’s excellent book on all those things that piss us off. Do you have a friend or relation who wonders why atheists seem angry? Do you need to get your angry thoughts in order? All of you will benefit from this book. Give it freely.

Marriage: A History by Stephanie Coontz

This is an excellent book for shattering the notion that there’s any such thing as “traditional marriage.” In it, we learn that marriage has always been in crisis, probably since about five minutes after the first human couple got married. There’s nothing new under the marital sun: this heterosexual nuclear family thingy is the real oddball. In these pages, Stephanie Coontz explores the smorgasbord that is marriage throughout the world, and discovers that traditional marriage is really in the eye of the beholder, even if you ignore all of those different types from the ancient times of a few centuries ago. This book contains truths inconvenient to culture warriors. And that is why it’s a book every atheist should have handy.

Freedom to Love for All by Yemisi Ilesanmi.

Written for an African audience, this tome will be quite helpful for anyone with African friends or family, or those interested in political struggles for equality in Africa. But it’s broad enough to be of use to anyone fighting that battle anywhere fundies rear up and attempt to legislate their morality. It debunks some of the common myths fundies love to spread: that homosexuality et al is unnatural, that gay marriage is a slippery slope to a whole new definition of animal husbandry, and that if the majority of people support so-called “traditional marriage,” that somehow gives them a license to discriminate. This book, while not large, accomplishes a lot.

Liars for Jesus by Chris Rodda.

An utterly thorough, unimpeachably sourced beatdown of the lies Liars for Jesus tell about America, this book is a vital necessity for those of us on this side of the culture wars. It combats right wing authoritarian bullshit with actual truth, which is always refreshing. It’s indispensable to those of us who are trying to disabuse lied-to people of the erroneous notions stuffed into their heads. It’s suitable for giving to those religious relations who love to spout America-is-a-Christian-nation nonsense at the feast table – and quite handy for those who must endure them.

Dishonest to God by Mary Warnock

This is a very British book, investigating the intersection of religion and public policy in a country where, despite an established church, secularism is strong and fundie religion rather weak. Despite Warnock not being a fire-breathing New Atheist, and rather more indulgent towards religion than many of us atheist activist types feel comfortable about, she argues strongly that morality must be decoupled from religion when it comes to the law. Eminently sensible, and containing good ideas suitable for all countries.

 

Science

 

The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers.

Despite the awful title which he didn’t choose, this is an excellent collection of PZ’s finest atheist thought, including much biology. Chapters are short (basically blog posts) and include many of his most famous essays, including The Courtier’s Reply. The majority of the book isn’t about science, but builds to the science section, and those chapters are inspiring and meaty. This book is perfect for people who need unapologetic atheism and beautiful science in bite-sized morsels.

For the Rock Record edited by Jill S. Schneiderman and Warren D. Allmon.

I’m so excited about this book. Within, geologists take on – and take down – creationism and Intelligent Design. Biologists are already in the ring and have been for some time: with this collection of essays, geologists get in the cage and crack their knuckles before delivering a victory by knockout. Written by geologists and earth sciences educators, this book faces the fact that geology is just as much under attack by creationists as biology – after all, the rocks hold a lot of the evidence for evolution and an old, uncreated Earth. It covers geologic and paleontological claims made by creationists; their encroachment into earth sciences education, politics, and philosophy; and in a final section, covers the clash of geology and religion. It reflects on evolution with a focus on the earth sciences, and doesn’t forget that Darwin was, first and foremost, a geologist. Got a geologist/atheist on your list? This is their book. You just have to get it for them.

God and the Folly of Faith by Victor Stenger.

With this book, Victor has mounted up as one of the horsepeople of the atheist apocalypse. Seriously. No quarter is given, and if you want a book that will make religion ashamed to play at science, this is the one.

 

Women and Minorities in Atheism

 

Does God Hate Women? by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

A gut-shot of a book, in which Ophelia and her coauthor show us the religious terror perpetrated upon women. It slays the “cultural” argument for brutal practices and gives religion no quarter. Its main focus is on Islam, but it also blasts Orthodox Judaism, Hinduism, the FLDS branch of Mormonism, Catholicism, and more. It shines a very harsh light on the fact that, actually, according to most of the World’s Great Religions™, God does indeed hate women.

Women Without Superstition by Annie Laurie Gaylor.

You know how people are always having a hard time remembering that women have been doing the atheism thing for half of forever, too? Give them this book. It has 51 female freethinkers in it. It spans a slice of history from just before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein up to our own Taslima Nasrin. It includes both bios and excerpts, and if you walk away from it without being able to recite the names of at least a dozen hugely influential freethinking women, you didn’t read the damn book.

Moral Combat by Sikivu Hutchinson.

An excellent book exploring black infidels and African American secular thought, which fiercely challenges religion’s stranglehold on morality. Social justice is crucial in minority communities, and this book shows that secular humanism can step up to fight for that justice, no religion necessary. And you’ll see how atheists of color are providing an alternative to the unrelenting whiteness of new atheism.

 

Here endeth Part II, mostly because my router is being an asshole. I’ll do me best to get Part III up tomorrow, which is all about the young folk – and if we get super-ambitious, may include some atheist fiction as well. (Also, if you would like to suggest a good, inexpensive, easy-to-use, and awesomely reliable router, please do feel free. This one’s getting chucked in a body of toxic water as soon as I can find a suitable replacement.)

Dana’s Super-Gargantuan Guide to Atheist Books Suitable for Gift-Giving (Part I)

It’s about that time when we perpetual procrastinators begin to feel each grain of sand dropping through the narrow bit of the glass, innit? If you’ve left gift-buying a bit late, never fear! Books are easy, Amazon and other online retailers are quick, the local bookstore may even be stocked, and you can get someone in your life a gift that will give them more than a moment’s pleasure.

I’m here to help you pick just the right one. Many of these, I’ve read. Some, I’ve only read bits of, but heard much about from other sources and thus feel comfortable recommending. I’ve split things into categories, so you can more quickly make a match between gift recipient’s interests and the right book. And, of course, these will also give you ideas as to how to spend those nifty gift cards you might end up with.

If I’ve reviewed the book, I provide a link to said review. If I haven’t, I’ve provided a brief synopsis to assist you. As always, feel free to add any favorites of your own in the comments – the more, the merrier!

Let’s go!

Photo of a cat lying atop books on a shelf, biting one. Caption says, "I am looking for a book I can REALLY sink my teeth into."Religion

In this section, you’ll find books on religion, wherein religion decidedly does not come out on top.

An American Fraud by Kay Burningham.

Anyone interested in Mormonism, and wanting to know if there’s a legal case for it being a big fat fraud, will love this book. You’ll also love giving it to Mormons.

Not the Impossible Faith by Richard Carrier.

I read the online version, and it was fascinating. In this book, Richard takes on and crushes the “common apologetic argument for the truth of [Christianity] that its origins were too improbable to be false.” This is a thing amongst some fundies. One of them is J.P. Holding, who pretty much recited All the Tropes having to do with this argument, thus painting Richard a maclargehuge target. By the end of this book, everyone will know why Christianity could succeed despite being utter bullshit. If fundie Christians could feel this particular type o’ shame, they’d be ashamed to try these arguments ever again. And the book not only crushes their pathetic apologetics with relentless precision, it also introduces the reader to amazing bits of ancient history, religion, society, and culture, which is an added bonus and great for history addicts.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

Suitable for gifting to those who want a no-holds-barred look at what religion really is. A book that has made many an atheist.

Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett.

If you need to give someone a book that gives religion no quarter, and yet doesn’t seem like one of those merciless New Atheist books, this is an excellent start, especially if the recipient likes philosophy.

The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: the Mormons by David Fitzgerald.

An excellent introductory guide to Mormonism for those who don’t actually know that much about it.

50 Simple Questions for Every Christian by Guy P. Harrison.

Ha ha ha, simple. Also a good book to innocently slip your religious relations. Tell them you thought it would help them argue with atheists. Heh.

The Skeptics Annotated Bible by Steve Wells.

The only Bible that has ever made me want to go to church as an atheist, this is a fantastic gift for atheists and believers alike. Give one to your fundie friends and relations! They can’t complain – you are, after all, giving them a nice King James edition. With, um, some extra footnotes…

 

Leaving Religion

Here we have books that are mostly about getting the fuck out of faith.

Godless by Dan Barker.

Fascinating tome by a man who used to be a born-again evangelist who was really on fire for the Lord, and is now an atheist champion.

Why I Believed by Kenneth W. Daniels.

So this is a book by a former missionary that is extraordinary in its ability to really get to the nuts-and-bolts of believing, and then losing that belief. Suitable for gifting to friends and family members who just can’t understand your atheism in the least.

 

Atheism

Here’s the meaty atheist goodness! Not that the above wasn’t, this stuff has just got more atheism in it.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers.

This book is snarky as hell, and I fell in love with it instantly. That was while I read the table of contents. It’s an excellent resource for atheists at Christmas, and safe for leaving near religious grandmothers. It includes all you need to know, really: the history, philosophy, science, and how-to of Christmas. Royalties from its sales go to charity, and our own Jen McCreight is in it, so if any atheists out there need some help with the holiday, give ‘em this.

The Portable Atheist edited by Christopher Hitchens.

This is a smorgasbord of freethought readings that includes many you’d never have considered freethought. I mean, The Rubáiyát? But yes, a lot of atheism and freethinking existed even during times that were deeply religious. This book covers ancient to modern times, includes a lot of different folks, and is a great place for a new (whether New, Gnu or not) atheist to begin.

Why I Am Not a Muslim by ibn Warraq.

This is rather like what Bertrand Russell did to Christianity, only aimed squarely at Islam. It’s also harsher and more thorough. It absolutely destroys the myth of the divine origins of the Koran, explores the horrifying political implications of fundie Islam, and rather murders that “Islam loved People of the Book!” trope. There are informative and infuriating sections on Women in Islam, taboos, heretics, Islamic skeptics, and more. For those leaving Islam, those of us wanting to critique Islam without sounding like raving right-wing assholes, and those of us who are terminally curious about being apostates from a religion other than Christianity, this is a fantastic book.

The Atheist’s Bible edited by Joan Konner.

A book full o’ freethinking quotes, arranged somewhat like a bible (beginning with Genesis, even), and eminently suitable for leaving lying innocently about where a non-atheist may encounter it, such as on a coffee table or in a bathroom. Perhaps they will pick it up out of idle curiosity, horrified fascination, or sheer desperation for reading material. Two things, if the moment is just right, may happen as a result:

1. They will learn that someone they admire and respect was, quite possibly, an atheist.

2. They will be prompted to think thoughts they haven’t before thunk.

And these are outcomes greatly to be desired.

Nothing: Something to Believe In by Nica Lalli.

I love how, in the intro, Nica says that she chooses “nothing” because it cuts out the god root (theos). She’s right: nothing can stand on its own. This is a journey of discovery about what it means to be nothing in a world swimming in religion. She spent most of her life “frightened or upset by religion,” and realized that not having a religious identity meant having no ammo when the religious freaks came gunning for her soul. She eventually learned to defend her beliefs, and also learned that being despised by the majority of the country is not equal to being despised by your own family, as she discovered when faced with an uber-religious sister-in-law. But there’s comfort to be found in “nothing,” and possibly some decent coexistence, too.

Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell.

This is one of the original New Atheist tomes, really. It’s a classic by a no-holds-barred philosopher, and while it’s a tiny little book, it contains pretty much everything you need to get started on a career of unapologetic atheism. Make sure all the new (and possibly New) atheists you know have got a copy. It wouldn’t hurt to slip one in the stockings of believers, either, should you feel the need to counter their typical religious gift schlock.

Here endeth Part I. Part II coming as soon as I can manage it.

Summer Reading That Will Give You the Secrets to Conquering Missionaries

I can’t wait for the Mormon missionaries to show up at my door again. Usually, I don’t have the patience to deal with people trying to sell me religion – I’ve got kittehs to play with, rocks to pound, posts to write, food to savor… Who wants to spend a glorious summer afternoon arguing religion with two scrubbed (in mind and body) young people when you could be lounging on the patio with book, cat, and drink?

Me!

After two books and a website, I’m eagerly scanning the horizon for those poor innocent folks. I might even invest in two extra patio chairs so we can lounge outside with the Book of Mormon, the cat (granted neither are allergic), and drinks (non-alcoholic, of course. See – I can be accommodationist, too!).

“Dana!” I hear you cry in my vivid imagination, “what can possibly lead to such a dramatic change?!”

I shall tell you. What’s more, I shall arm you with fascinating, often funny, reading, and questions guaranteed to make missionaries sweat more than the weather warrants.

Dwindling in Unbelief masthead, via the DiU blog.

Dwindling in Unbelief masthead, via the DiU blog.

It began because Steve and Phillip Wells are Blogging the Book of Mormon. They’re brave people. I haven’t attempted to read the BOM since our badass cat – you know, the one who could catch jackrabbits twice her size on the hop – took a serious dislike to it.* Look, when my mama cat tells me not to do something, you think I’m gonna argue? Kitteh knows best!

Besides, as the Doctor would say, it’s not holy writ – it’s atrociously writ. The ingredients list on a shampoo bottle is better than that book: it’s (probably) non-fiction and teaches me interesting words, plus some chemistry. The BOM causes my Inner Editor to have a complete nervous collapse, which process is painful to witness. Who wants to suffer all this? So I’m grateful to Steve and Phillip, who are sparing us much agony.

Thanks to them, I can now have a somewhat in-depth discussion of the BOM up through most of Mosiah. I can ask questions about things like how fast ancient Hebrews can walk**, and why God likes the phrase “and it came to pass” so much. I can explain that one of the reasons I’m having a hard time abandoning my atheism is that I can’t believe any god could be such an awful writer. And I can give them a handy URL (http://dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com/2010/07/blogging-book-of-mormon.html) to visit showing them how their holy book appears to skeptics. Heck, if I’m feeling really ambitious, I can direct them to the Skeptics Annotated Book of Mormon, lovingly edited by two brave blokes blogging the BOM.

It’s kind of like if MST3K did holy books. Hilarious!

But that’s pretty skeptical stuff, and only super-useful if a) the missionaries are already wavering in their faith and just need a loving push off the fence, or b) I want to see how long it takes to make the pair of them run away screaming. It’s a great way to read a really fucking stupid religious screech screed, but doesn’t give me the real dirt. You know, the stuff you can only learn by investigating the “making of” a religion.

The Mormons book cover via Goodreads.

The Mormons book cover via Goodreads.

Enter The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: the Mormons, by David Fitzgerald. ZOMG, you guys! Now, mind you, I’ve been subjected to an hours-long rant about the fraudulicious origins of Mormonism by an enraged ex-Mormon who’d become ex by engaging his brain, and I’d picked up more bits and pieces hither and yon, but this book packages the juicy bits with premium snark. Like so:

So despite all FAIR’s [Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research] smug assertations, it would appear the Book of Mormon’s ancient Nephites had, in fact, not a barley-based, but bullshit-based economy.

Oh, snap. (By the way, barley didn’t show up in the New World pre-Columbus. You might want to ask your anxious young religious salespeople what God did with all the archaeological evidence of these ancient civilizations. Then, after they’ve stumbled through an answer on that, ask ‘em why God mucked up all the Native American DNA.***)

David’s book was as informative as it was entertaining. He’s got great useful factoids like the weight of the mysterious “Golden Plates.” Joseph Smith’s first wife Emma must have been superpowered, because she could lift the box they were in with one hand whilst dusting. Thing is, the buggers weighed more than 198 pounds (50, if God was a cheap-arsed barstard and let his scribes use mere gold-plated plates). I can’t wait to ask about things like that. And the discrepancies in Mormonism’s foundational stories (Jo Smith couldn’t keep his lies straight, poor bugger). And I’ll want to know why there’s so many corrections to “the most correct book on Earth” (62,000 words added or deleted, for instance). And so much more!

The whole book is a rollicking good read, but the most valuable chapter of all is Chapter 14: Talking to the Ex-Mormons of the Future – Today! This was like getting special Mormon-spectacles. They and their bizarre belief system had been sort of fuzzy and out of focus, despite growing up with Mormon friends. Now they’re in better focus. I never quite knew quite how sheltered, terrorized, and lied to, not to mention programmed and brainwashed, the poor things were. Chapter 14 gives excellent advice on how to talk to missionaries. That was worth the price of the book right there. And it quotes our own Greta Christina‘s fabulous Why Are You Atheists So Angry? Awesomesauce! There’s a whole list of things that will help you effectively talk to Mormons – and plant the skeptical seeds that may eventually help them grow out of a very destructive faith. Priceless!

But don’t stop there. Not when you can get Kay Burningham’s An American Fraud: One Lawyer’s Case Against Mormonism. Guilty!

 An American Fraud: One Lawyer's Case Against Mormonism cover art via Barnes and Noble.

An American Fraud: One Lawyer’s Case Against Mormonism cover art via Barnes and Noble.

Before I sing the book’s praises, a caveat: Kay’s a lawyer, not a writer. You will have to gird your loins (or thwack your Inner Editor over the head, slap some duct tape on their limbs and mouth, and bundle them into a closet for the duration). The first portion of the book, her autobiographical bit, does, shall we say, reveal that the author is not a polished prose professional. The flashbacks are more like switchbacks that include several detours, a blizzard, and an impaired driver. Throughout, there are spelling and grammatical errors that demonstrate that a) no professional editor got so much as a glimpse of the book or b) if one did, they were also grievously impaired. The violence done to the common comma will make you weep and perhaps start a charity fund. In other words: this book will win no awards for its literary perfection.

And that doesn’t matter at all.

A flawed gem is still a gem, and a gripping story can survive an amateur storyteller. Kay gives you a raw, honest look at what it means to grow up Mormon: how even an intelligent and skeptical person can fall for a pious fraud. She kept me up all damned night – twice. And just about did for me the rest of the nights. It took a lot of self-control to keep from trying to finish in one marathon session.

Through Kay, you’ll get an inside look at super-sekrit Temple ceremonies (newsflash: they suck).You’ll see how the Church’s misogyny destroys women. You’ll learn why Utah is among the psychiatric medicine industry’s best customers. You’ll learn what it takes to break free of a lifetime of indoctrination. It’s harrowing.

I love the two-thirds of the book devoted to a lawyer’s assessment of the evidence against the Mormon church. You’ll discover the lengths the Mormon church’s elders have gone to in order to keep the flock ignorant. You’ll see the devastating effect the internet’s had on America’s second dumbest religion (you know what the first is). And you’ll learn how the Church could be prosecuted, without disturbing the First Amendment a bit.

This is the kind of book you mark pages in and keep by the door, ready for the missionaries’ next visit. It’s the one you go through, quoting original source material fatal to their religion, until they flee. And the beauty of it is, nearly every primary source Kay cites is or once was a devout Mormon. These are people who were privy to the secrets at the top, people who were there at the beginning, people who did their homework, desperate to restore their faith – and ended up killing it dead. These are people who are still trapped inside. All folks these poor missionary kids will find impossible to impeach. Learning this stuff may free them before they’re in far too deep to rescue themselves. And it’s certainly a book you should give to anyone in your life who’s considering converting.

So there you are. All you’ll need for a rollicking good time the next time the kids in white shirts and dark ties appear at your door. You’ll probably end up on the Church’s do-not-visit-this-house-under-any-circumstances list, but hopefully not before you’ve made inroads on church membership.

Freeing people of damaging dogma is one of the best things we can ever do. Take these keys and open some cages.

 

*One of my friends did give me the Book of Mormon once because she wanted me to understand her faith better. I tossed it on the couch and didn’t give it another thought until my big calico mama cat came in, looked at it, puffed up and hissed, walked waaaay way around it, and sat down staring me in the eye with a “What are you going to do about that evil thing?” look on her face. I trust my cats. I got rid of the book.

**The average human walking speed is roughly 5 kilometers per hour. Based on the length of time the BOM says Lehi and his family took to walk the 407km (straight line) from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, ancient Hebrew families could apparently hoof it at nearly 6 kilometers per hour, and never had to pause for food, water, restroom breaks, sleep, thorns in sandals, heatstroke, etc. for up to 72 hours. Now dat’s stamina!

***Mormons believe barley was introduced by Hebrew immigrants to the Americas long before Christ, and that Native Americans are descended from some of those immigrants. Alas for them, archaeological and biological evidence refuse to cooperate.