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

Do You Believe in Magic? The 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.

 

Why Is Kink Fun? A Guest post by Greta Christina

Unzip your mind. Sit back, relax with your drink of choice, and read the following with a healthy spirit of inquiry. Many of you won’t even need to do that much – you’re kinky yourownselves, and you’re ready to go dive into the book without advance preparation. Some of you aren’t kinky at all, or haven’t ever discovered more than a mild, currently socially-acceptable kink within yourself (fuzzy handcuffs, eh? Nice!). Some of you have been conditioned to believe kink is sick and horrible and never ever good.

As with many things, you’ve been lied to. And Greta will attempt to explain why this thing you think is no fun at all is actually very fun and healthy and mucho bueno for many folks. Ready? Then go:

 

Why Is Kink Fun?

Guest post by Greta Christina

"Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More" - by our own Greta Christina - is currently available as an ebook on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. Audiobook and paperback are coming soon!

“Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More” – by our own Greta Christina – is currently available as an ebook on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. Audiobook and paperback are coming soon!

Why is kink fun?

Why is it that some people — in very specialized, negotiated, enthusiastically consensual circumstances — find it not just acceptable, but actively and deeply pleasurable, to be controlled, dominated, physically hurt, used, objectified, shamed, humiliated, and/or have their freedom curtailed?

Quick bit of background. I’ve recently published a collection of erotic fiction — mostly kinky — titled “Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.” (Currently available as an ebook on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords — audiobook and paperback are coming soon.) The book has gotten an excellent reception so far, with lots of lovely gushing reviews. But it’s also been received with some bafflement, and in some cases even hostility, from a few readers and people who’ve seen excerpts or read what I’ve written about it… and who don’t understand how it can be healthy to get sexual pleasure from experiences that are so obviously unhealthy and negative and bad. Example: I got this message on Facebook recently, which I’m printing with the senders permission (anonymously at their request):

I am right in the middle of your book “Bending”. As someone who has a very “vanilla” sex drive with no kinks (literally, none.. I’m as bland as they come) I don’t quite see the appeal to feeling shame that comes with BDSM-style punishment and discipline. As someone who’s been shamed in real life by religion in years past, and by friends and family who don’t understand my hobbies and quirks, I find it hard to empathize with how shame can be a turn-on for some people.

I ask this in the most non-judgmental way possible… but, what is the appeal? I’m a little hung up on your book because I don’t understand how humiliation can be erotic. I think the book is very well written but I’m just having a hard time reading through it because there is a stark disconnect between my sexuality and the sexuality of the characters portrayed in your short stories.

Thank you very much for your time. I love the work that you do and look forward to possibly hearing back from you.

I’ve been doing kinky sex for so long, I sometimes forget how incomprehensible it sometimes seems to people who aren’t into it. But I do recognize why this might be hard to understand. In some ways, consensually sadomasochistic sex can almost be defined as sex that eroticizes, and makes pleasurable, experiences that would normally be actively unpleasant, and in some cases even horrific.

What about that feels good?

There’s a limit to how well I’m going to be able to get this across. Sex is such a personal, subjective experience. Explaining why you like any kind of sex that someone else doesn’t — kinky or otherwise — is tricky at best. Try explaining why you like sex with someone of the opposite sex — or the same sex — to someone who really, really doesn’t. It’s like trying to explain what it is that tastes good about broccoli, to someone who totally loathes it. But I’m going to take a stab.

Caveat #1: I’m just talking about myself here. I know that my experiences are shared by many, but I don’t presume to speak for all kinky people. Caveat #2: This is a complicated issue — what’s the phrase the social scientists use? Multi-factorial? — and anything I say to explain this is going to oversimplify pretty much by definition. All that being said, I’m going to take a stab.

For me, much of what it comes down to is intimacy.

The thing about pain is that it gets through. I can be a very well-defended, self-contained person: I don’t let myself get close to people very easily, and it’s hard to just let those walls down and let someone else in. But pain gets through. It’s impossible to ignore. The very intensity of it — the fact that my body is processing the sensation, on some level, as unpleasant — grabs my attention, wakes me the fuck up. If someone is hitting me, I can’t tune out the fact that they’re touching me.

And it isn’t just pain I’m talking about here. In my experience, most forms of sadomasochistic sex have to do with breaking down barriers. Shame and humiliation break down the barriers of dignity and composure. Bondage and domination break down the barriers of self-containment and self-possession. There is an intense intimacy in putting yourself in someone else’s hands, handing over the reins, letting them control what you’re going to be feeling for a while. And again, the very intensity of the experience, the fact that some small part of my brain is screaming, “This is not okay! Get away from this now!”, can — again, in the right circumstances and with the right person — be an intensifier, a magnifier of experience. Including the experience of intimacy, of connection, of being touched by another person.

There’s a lot more going on here, of course. I’ve found that I tend to fantasize about what I don’t have — and when my life is micro-scheduled and overloaded with responsibility, as it so often is, it can feel like a huge burden being lifted to just let go and let someone else be the decider for a couple/ few hours. (You know the cliché of the high-powered business executive seeking out a dominatrix, to relieve him of responsibility for a short while? It’s a cliché for a reason.)

Also, I should point out that kinky people aren’t the only ones who think power is sexy. Humans are hierarchical apes. Get three of us in a room together, and we’ll create a dominance structure. It’s not hugely surprising that many of us would eroticize power. And it’s not hugely surprising that some of us would eroticize power in an overt, explicit way: not simply by being attracted to politicians or moguls, but by being aroused by a person standing over us with a whip.

Then there’s endorphins: the brain’s natural opiates, which kick in as a response to pain, and which under the right circumstances can get us high. And which sexual masochists will tell you about in loving detail, and at great length. If you understand why many athletes experience pain — and pushing through pain to get to the endorphin high — as a pleasurable experience… then you can understand at least part of why sexual masochists experience pain as a pleasurable experience.

And for me at least, there’s a certain hard-wired quality to these experiences that’s fundamentally inexplicable. I have been aware of being kinky for as long as I’ve been aware of being sexual. And I don’t mean since I was eighteen, or since I was thirteen. I mean since I was eight. I have been aware of being kinky for about as long as I’ve been aware of being queer. That isn’t true for every kinky person — but it’s true for a lot of us. I don’t entirely understand this stuff myself: yes, I have intimacy issues, but I think pretty much everyone has intimacy issues, and most people don’t handle those issues by intentionally eroticizing getting beaten and pushed around. Most people probably couldn’t eroticize pain and submission and humiliation, even if they wanted to. (There are people who come to kink later in life, and who nurture a kinky sexuality intentionally — in response to a partner who enjoys it, for instance — but in my experience, most of them had at least a seed of kink to start with.) The way my body processes pain, the way my mind processes power… I can’t entirely explain it, any more than I can explain why I like girls. The clit has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.

But what it mostly comes down to, for me, is intimacy. Kink gets through. It breaks down my walls. I have formidable walls at times… and the intensity of kink sets dynamite underneath them.

I’ve so far been writing about this from the bottom’s perspective: explaining why it feels good to receive pain, to be humiliated, to be controlled. But I’m a switch, and I can tell you that it feels good on the other side as well… and for much the same reasons. Just as it feels good to both penetrate sexually and be penetrated, it feels good to be on both sides of the connection of sadomasochism. It feels good to break down walls, just as it does to have your walls broken. It feels good to touch, with the intensity of pain or power, just as it does to be touched.

If this still doesn’t make sense: There’s an analogy that some of my readers have made in some other conversations about this. Kink is like a rollercoaster, or a horror movie. It can be fun and exciting to subject yourself to otherwise unpleasant emotions — like fear — in a safe, controlled setting. There is a thrill to fear, a rush… and when you can experience that rush with people you trust, in a place where you know you’re safe, it can filter out the unpleasantness, and leave only the thrill.

Ultimately, it may not be possible to really convey what this experience is like. I will probably never understand on a visceral level what it feels like to enjoy broccoli, or what it is that people find pleasurable about that experience. And someone with no interest whatsoever in kink may never understand on a visceral level what it feels like to enjoy getting beaten or shamed or controlled.

And it may not matter that much. As long as you have an intellectual understanding of this stuff; as long as you have an understanding of the basic fact that people do like different sexual things from you, and that this doesn’t make them sick or bad; as long as you understand that there is literally no medical evidence suggesting that kinky people are sick or bad, and in fact plenty of evidence pointing to the conclusion that we’re every bit as healthy and good as everyone else; as long as you understand that no matter what your sexuality is, there is someone in the world who finds it incomprehensible and weird — and as long as you can use that understanding to accept kinky people and treat us with decency — I don’t know that it matters that much whether you can deeply, viscerally grasp what it is about this experience that people get off on.

But getting a glimmer of the visceral experience can help with the intellectual understanding. It may even help people who do have kinky feelings, and who have been shamed into thinking that they’re sick or dangerous or wrong, come to an acceptance of them, and feel more comfortable exploring them.

And anyway, it’s just fun to think about.

“Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More” is currently available as an ebook on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. Audiobook and paperback are coming soon!

50 “Simple” Questions, Me Arse

I thought we were in trouble. Guy P. Harrison’s introduction to his new book 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian set alarm bells a-ringing. “This book is not an attack on Christian people,” the first line says. Fair enough. But then there were all sorts of weaselly, mealy-mouthed words that seemed to shout “Retreat!” “Humble and far less threatening,” forsooth. “Clichéd and cartoonish angry atheist attack on crazy Christians,” indeed! “No interest in scoring debate points,” even so! “Proud to say I’ve walked away on friendly terms,” for fuck’s sake. Despite assurances punches would not be pulled, I was positive I was in for 324 pages of forelock-tugging, bowing and scraping deference to Christianity. This looked like it was going to be one of those kumbaya books, and I almost packed it up and sent it back to Prometheus Books with a note saying, “No. I can’t do this.”

50 Simple Questions for Every Christian by Guy P. Harrison. Image courtesy Prometheus Books.

50 Simple Questions for Every Christian by Guy P. Harrison. Image courtesy Prometheus Books.

But I read on, with much trepidation, and within about twenty pages wondered if any Christians would make it so far. Guy wasn’t kidding when he said he was pulling no punches. Despite the occasional irritating elbow thrown at “both sides” (with no evidence that our side ever did anything equivalent), this is mostly a full-on series of knockout blows. Oh, it’s all very civil. But we all know civil language doesn’t mean the content itself is gentle. I don’t know if I’d give this book to any Christian whose faith wasn’t already wavering, because I suspect they’d close it after two pages and never open it again. But it’s an excellent addition to any skeptic’s library, because it gives us 50 questions to use as wedges to insert into any cracks of faith and hammer home.

I like that he led off by asking, “does Christianity makes sense?” That’s an excellent question to explore beyond your Christian conversation partner’s first, “well, of course it does!” And the questions, simple on their surface, keep getting harder, as do the points Guy makes about each one. He presents the atheist/skeptical perspective regarding each question clearly and completely. No quibbles from this New Atheist.

By the end of the book, the common arguments most Christians make for their faith are out cold. Miracles? Dispatched. Prophecies? Punctured. Loving God? Revealed as a complete shit. Intelligent design? In tatters. Good only with God? More like good without God. Pascal’s Wager? A foolish gamble indeed. The Bible? As The Doctor once said, “Atrociously writ!” Guy says it’s not about the content or contradictions. “No, the real reason the Bible hasn’t been able to convince everyone everywhere that Jesus is the only path to heaven is that it is poorly written and structured.” That’s it. That’s the only argument we need; the rest is mere detail. If God existed, he would have been a better writer, and selected excellent editors.

Guy makes a clear and convincing case for skepticism throughout the book. One of my favorite moments is on page 107, where he says, “One unfounded belief sets us up to fall for the next one.” Absolute truth. He hits hard at verses in the Bible used to degrade and subjugate women, and he won’t let modern Christians get away with saying all that’s in the past. He hammers away at the notion that Christianity has anything to fear from science – why would it, if it’s true? By the end of the book, any Christians still unwilling to subject their faith to the rigors of modern science should be feeling thoroughly ashamed, and wondering how true their faith could possibly be if they’re unwilling to let science near it.

Geology gets its rock hammer in – you lot will love the discussion around the “Did God to drown the world?” question, wherein geologists get more than a mere mention. Guy displays a clear understanding of how the geologic record works. Allow me to quote a bit of the passage on page 239 that left me all warm and fuzzy:

Ten thousand years is an extremely thin sliver of time in geology. It’s certainly not so long ago that modern geologists would not have confirmed the flood. A global flood would have been an extraordinarily massive event in the Earth’s history with a colossal impact. It would have left behind a very clear and obvious record. Evidence for it would be everywhere, and the world’s geologists would be the first to see it.

You bet we would!

I also learned of the “Well to Hell,” which I’ve never heard of (pages 257-8). How did I miss this? It’s hilarious – and it provides some teachable moments in geology that I’ll be putting to good use soon. “Center of the Earth,” my arse. Snortle.

The “scientists are arrogant” trope is dispatched with no muss or fuss on page 252. Hard to come over all arrogant when you’re running around admitting and correcting mistakes, and saying you haven’t got all the answers, innit?

This book also contains some shocks for us atheists. As in, “There is no such thing as an atheist.” It’s true! Who are the gods we believe existed, thus killing our atheist cred? Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Ramses II, among others, all of whom were really-real historical figures deified after death. Checkmate, atheists! (This came by way of showing how crappy definitions of God are – see page 167, and chortle along.)

Upshot: I think this is a handy volume for atheists and skeptics to own. I’d encourage brave and/or questioning Christians to get it, as well. And if you want to send the die-hard believer in your life into screaming apoplexy, this might be the ideal gift. Regardless, these are excellent questions, thoughtfully answered from the skeptic’s perspective with plenty of stories and statistics to illustrate. It’s not a kind book. But it deeply respects the Christian’s intelligence, which is more than we can say for the religious leaders who feed their flocks nothing but pap. I’ll be recommending it to anyone who wants to know more about the skeptic’s perspective, or counters to common Christian tactics. And I’ll happily pull it out the next time missionaries darken my doorstep. Combined with the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, I have a feeling I might scar a few innocent young things for life.

Funny how they always seem to skip my apartment… Perhaps I should put a note on the door saying I have a Bible and a few simple questions. Heh.

Now I Wanna Go to Church…

No, seriously. I do. I even have my Bible:

Mah very own Skeptic's Annotated Bible. I loves it and it is mine. My own. My - wait...

Mah very own Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. I loves it and it is mine. My own. My – wait…

I seriously do love my Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. I cackled when it came in the mail, and immediately took pictures of it, then took it out of its clear plastic wrapper and took more pictures, then I took it to bed and promptly began reading. About forty-seven seconds later, I had an almost overwhelming urge to go to church. I want to find the most Bible-believing biblical literalist church possible, and sit there with my big ochre bible, and innocently thumb through it. “Excuse me, Pastor, did you just say God wants us to be saved? But what about here in Second Thessalonians 2:11 and 12, where it says God will make us believe lies so that we’re damned? How does that work?” Cue puzzled but beatific smile.

This is a wonderful book. Granted, there’s a website. But somehow, having this book in hand is utterly different. I think it’s because it feels like the very serious bibles we thumbed through in church every Sunday morning. Its pages are thin and crackly; it has a solemn weight, and somber binding. When you open it, there are the King James words, ever so familiar and hallowed by centuries of repetition. But you’ll never find this introduction in a Christian Bookstore bible: “When I was a Christian, I never read the Bible. Not all the way through, anyway. The problem was that I believed the Bible to be the inspired and inerrant word of God, yet the more I read it, the less credible that belief became. I finally decided that to protect my faith in the Bible, I’d better quit trying to read it.”

Lolz.

Steve Wells did us a huge good service by going through this nasty book verse by verse, annotating and highlighting. In the margins, you’ll find a simple key, little icons that tell you where to find absurdity (okay, more absurdity), injustice, cruelty and violence, intolerance, contradictions, conflicts with science and history, Biblical family values (ha!), interpretation, misogyny and insults to women, sex, false prophecy and misquotes, language (as in naughty), homosexuality (all few references), and, just occasionally, good stuff. Those little icons make skimming through to find what you need quite easy.

Each chapter is introduced with highlights. To take a chapter at random, we’ll flip to Philippians, where the highlights tell us, “Forget Jesus. Paul says you should follow him and people that follow him.” That’s in Philippians 3:17, for those who want a peek. I loved those chapter highlights: it helped me orient myself and gave me fun things to look forward to in what is, let’s face it, an atrociously written book. Well, atrociously written books mashed together any-old-how. A good read-through makes me wonder how anyone’s powers of self-deception are up to the task of convincing self and everyone that this mess is meaningful. Yeesh.

After a while, you just want to skip to the end. Which is where the really good stuff is. Steve included a list of contradictions (spoiler alert: it’s really really long). I think this may be my favorite part of the book, because it’s such a simple, clear-cut reference showing the contradictions with eye-opening clarity – and citing chapter and verse.This is the part I will turn to the next time proselytizers arrive at my door. I will sit them down, open my SAB to that list, and go down the whole thing, asking for explanations until they flee. It’s going to be such fun.

And then, the pièce de résistance, the greatest list of all: “God’s Killings in the Bible.” It begins with Noah’s flood and ends with Jesus. A few killings seem to be missing, but the dude’s such a homicidal maniac it’s hard for even someone as thorough as Steve to keep track. It doesn’t matter. By the time you hit line 25 or 50 (representing untold bloodshed) that you start to realize the God of love was actually the God of “Dang, I love killing humans!” By line 135, it’s really hard to see the Christian god as anything other than a genocidal freak, and throwing a few more bodies on the pile seems, frankly, like overkill. Which is something God engaged in with alarming frequency.

All of this awesomeness is sandwiched between Selected Quotes from the Old Testament (front end-papers) and Selected Quotes from the New Testament (endpapers). And you know those quotes are the ones guaranteed to make all but the most blinkered Christian squirm. “Hey, kids! Let’s read the Bible together! How about Second Kings 18:27? That’s wholesome!”

I’m loving this. I figure if people are going to believe the bible’s their good book, they should read the thing, and prepare to defend it in all it’s blood-soaked, slavery-approving, misogynistic, ignorant, violent and contradictory glory. The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible  makes it easy to help that process along. We can do bible study together! Hooray!

It’s also suitable for gifting to religious relatives and friends, and all you have to do is practice your innocent look: “Oh, it’s a skeptic’s view of the bible? Wow. I thought it was a bible you’d give to a skeptic to bring ‘em around!” *bat eyelashes, shrug bashfully*

The only thing that will make this better is having my pantheist friend join me at church with her LOLcat Bible. And I am breathlessly awaiting the day when the Skeptic’s Annotated Book of Mormon and the Skeptic’s Annotated Qu’ran are available in print. I’ll be bloody well tempted to become a comparative religions scholar in my free time, and if I do, I will enjoy it.

Thank you, Steve, for such an outstanding reference bible. It will have pride o’ place on my shelf, and I hope it will pass down through many generations of my skeptical family. Those of you who’d like to join me at church, you can get your copy here.

By Popular Request: Geology Book Extravaganza

By popular demand, just in time for the holidays, here ’tis: a maclargehuge list o’ geology books! Okay, so Heliconia asked merely for an introductory geology book. And Redpanda may not have expected a huge list when inquiring after a few titles to fill in ye olde gaps in scientific knowledge. But if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing, I say – and besides that, I had two years of book reviews to pull from.

So here they are at last, books I recommend to those who need the short (compared to a university degree) and sweet course in geology.

Annals of the Former World

Annals of the Former World. Image courtesy Goodreads.

 

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee

This is the one that always comes up in any conversation where geologists are discussing good geology books. It’s four books in one, and takes you from coast to coast through America with John and geologists, exploring geological history and wonders. This was a time when the plate tectonics revolution was brand-new, so you get a sense of the excitement (“We can finally make sense of this stuff!”) and the caution (“Slow down, hoss, you ain’t gathered all your evidence yet.”). So you get to watch a theory being born.

Being a book by John McPhee, this is beautifully written, and will stay with you for a lifetime. This is an excellent place for anyone to start.

Reading the Rocks

Reading the Rocks. Image courtesy Goodreads.

 

Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth by Marcia Bjornerud

Do this: read the introduction to this book. Just that. By the end, you will have learned something of geology, gotten broadsided by a puckish sense of humor, and likely been hooked enough to buy the thing. This is the intro-to-geology book for those who want – oh, how did I put it when I first read her book? –  “a fun, easy and accurate primer on geology…” I also said, “She’s not only an informative writer whose prose flows like water over Franklin Falls, she’s snarky. I am a sucker for snark.” I still am. I still love this book. And I still foist it upon people who are looking for a short, sharp intro to geology.

So, get this and Annals, for a start. Then, if you are hooked and cannot stop….

Earth: An Intimate History

Earth: An Intimate History. Image courtesy About.com Geology.

 

Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

This is one of the first books I read when I was renewing my interest in earth science, lo these many years ago. I strongly believe it needs to be read by more people. I’ll see your John McPhee and raise you Richard Fortey – his prose is astoundingly beautiful. Also, he is British, and you know I’m an anglophile. Oh, language! Oh, earth! This is one of those books that immerses you, and by the time you emerge from it, you’ll understand so much more of this planet. You’ll absorb much more geology than you might believe you have done. This doesn’t seem like a science book as much as a love letter about the Earth – but it’s science, through and through. Hard science, strong science.

Read those three books, and you’re well on your way to being able to understand this geology thing. But wait! There’s more!

Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet

Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet. Image courtesy Goodreads.

 

Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet by Ted Nield

There are very few books that I immediately want to read again even before I’ve finished them.  This is one.

What to say?  That Ted Nield writes with the kind of clarity and style that, should he turn it into a narrative, would make even the phone book fascinating reading?  That’s one thing.  Add that to the fact that he’s writing about something inherently fascinating, and you have the recipe for a truly outstanding book.

Nield tells two histories: the history of supercontinents forming and rifting, and the history of our discovery and understanding of them.  Many times, when an author tells two tales, one takes second place to the other.  Nield manages to unfold them both in tandem, so that neither is slighted.  And he still finds time for interesting diversions: gentle pokes at Madame Blavatsky and other purveyors of New Age lost continent woo, the United States’ brief flirtation with the Queen of Mu, snowball earths, why the supercontinent Rodinia may have been vital to the evolution of life on Earth and why understanding supercontinents is so very vital to our survival now.  It’s a lot of territory to cover.  He does it in 270 pages.

At the end, he fires a scathing broadside at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum and those who abuse and ignore science for their inane ideologies.  One paragraph in particular stood out:

I have tried in this book to show something of how ideas in science often grade into – perhaps even sometimes derive from – myth, and I have done this to show how important it is to know the difference between the two.  The truth is that we, as a species, can no longer afford the luxury of irrationality and prejudice.  We are too many and too powerful to live in dreams.  And the greatest and most irrational of the prejudices from which we must free ourselves is one identified by Lucretius in the last century BC: the belief that the world was made for us.

Supercontinent says all that needs to be said about the importance of science in general and geology in particular, and it contains everything I love about science: the incredible power and beauty of the natural world, and the passion and persistence of the scientists who work so hard to understand it.

High praise, amirite? And yet, when we move out of the world as a whole and start getting just a wee bit more regional…

The Mountains of Saint Francis

The Mountains of Saint Francis. Image courtesy W. W. Norton.

 

The Mountains of Saint Francis  by Walter Alvarez

This is the best book on geology I’ve ever read.  Ever.  Oh, others have been wonderful, informative, and well-written, but there’s something about this one that just filled me to the brim.  Maybe it’s the shock – I thought of Walter Alvarez in connection with dinosaurs and killer meteorites, not the mountains of Italy.  Maybe it’s the fact he brings a totality of place and time to the subject, allowing you to experience more than just the rocks of Italy.  Maybe it’s the fact he introduced me to some fascinating fathers of geology, people I’d never known: Nicolaus Steno, who began his career in the 1600s by dissecting bodies and ended it by discovering Earth’s anatomy; Ambrogio Soldani, an abbot who pioneered micropaleontology all the way back in the 1700s.  Maybe it’s the rocks, who become characters in their own right, and with whom one can become very close friends indeed.

I don’t know.  There’s just something about this book – it’s bloody poetic is what it is, gorgeously written, easy to understand while not being dumbed-down, full of passion and wonder and delight.  Walter Alvarez adores geology, and his love glows from every page.  I wish everyone would read this book.  Anyone who’s ever been even mildly interested in how mountains came to be, what rocks tell us, and how we know what they’re saying, would benefit.  Anyone who wants to fall in love with science, whether it be for the first or five hundreth time, will find this book is a perfect matchmaker.  And anyone who’s ever loved Italy will love it even more after this.

The only thing it’s missing is color plates.  Otherwise, it’s perfect in all its particulars, and I’m grateful indeed to Walter for writing it.  More, please!

And I haz moar. Not Walter Alvarez, I’m afraid, not yet, but moar!

Stories in Stone

Stories in Stone. Image courtesy Goodreads.

 

Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology by David B. Williams

I have one quibble with this book: it should have included color photographs.  That’s all it’s really missing, though.  David B. Williams, who ended up interested in urban geology because he got stuck in Boston after living in the wild, wonderful geologic paradise of Utah.  Buildings clad in stone became his friends, a link to the natural world.  This book eventually resulted, and you’ll probably never look at a city the same way after reading it.

Each chapter is about a different stone: brownstone, limestone, gneiss, marble, travertine and more.  Architecture connects to geology connects to oddball tidbits of history and human endeavor (and sometimes silliness) in one seamless whole.  And there’s a websiteAnd David sometimes does geological tours of Seattle.  I’m so there! (Someday!)

This is another book I didn’t want to put down, because it felt like it was introducing me to quite a few friends – the Getty Museum, the petrified log gas station, and others – that I didn’t want to part from so soon.  And it’s given me ideas for a great many more adventures.  Inspiring, informative, intriguing – perfect!

This next one isn’t quite geology, but it has geology in it – and it must be included. You’ll see why in a second.

Life on a Young Planet

Life on a Young Planet. Image courtesy Princeton University Press.

 

Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth by Andrew H. Knoll

Lockwood recommended this one, and I’m glad he did.  I love reading books that give me physical pain when I realize I’m getting close to the end.  I hated finishing this book: it’s so beautifully written, so fascinating, and so informative that I could have happily spent the rest of my life reading it.

From mere chemical traces to exquisitely preserved microfossils, from the first ambiguous hints of life to stromatolites, from extremophiles to extraterrestrials, from ancient atmospheres to oxygen revolutions, this book is a journey through life itself.  Andrew Knoll’s sense of wonder is only matched by his scientific chops.  There are few people who can write using the big technical words and yet never for an instant seem dry.  He’s one of those rare talents.  He also explains things well  without stopping the narrative cold; tough concepts hold no terrors for the layperson in this slender book.  At least, not if said layperson has read a few books on evolution and biology first – I’m not sure how a total neophyte would fare, but I suspect the sheer power of the prose would smooth over any difficulties.

I can tell you this: a lot of the things that confused me about how really ancient life is identified got cleared up in the course of reading this book, and I understand quite a bit more about how a little rock from Mars caused so much excitement with ambiguous evidence for life.

Andrew Koll, if you’re reading this: I want a revised edition expanded by a factor of at least ten.

And, finally, we come to a very local book, but one that I think is one of the best books you can possibly teach yourself geology with – especially if you love big, beautiful, rich and detailed color photos.

In Search of Ancient Oregon

In Search of Ancient Oregon. Image courtesy Timber Press.

 

In Search of Ancient Oregon: A Geological and Natural History by Ellen Morris Bishop.

I’m not going to quote from this book, because all of it is quotable.  Dr. Ellen Morris Bishop, author and photographer, is a wonderful writer who brings Oregon’s geology to brilliant life.  It’s rare to find a PhD scientist who’s also a talented writer who’s also a brilliant photographer, but Dr. Bishop is all three.  You hear words like “expertly written” and “lavishly illustrated” tossed about for books that don’t strictly deserve it.  This one most decidedly does.

If you’ve ever been even the slightest bit interested in geology, you owe it to yourself to get this book.  If you like landscape photography but don’t give two shits about how the pretty rocks came to be there, you owe it to yourself to get this book.  If you’re interested in the flora and fauna of long-vanished worlds, you owe it to yourself to get this book.  If you want to know some awesome places to visit in Oregon, you owe it to yourself to get this book.

This is the book I give to folks who think they might be interested in geology but really aren’t sure and aren’t rocks mostly boring anyway? This is the book that started me geoblogging in earnest. This book is amazing. Buy it.

Right. So, that’s quite a little list, and you’re probably reeling about now. Don’t even know where to start, possibly, right? Look, many countries are coming up on a holiday during which it is customary to give and receive gifts. All you have to do is find eight friends, family and/or coworkers who are planning on giving you gifties, and hand each one of them a title. Then all you’ll have to worry about is which one to read first!

You can also go for the free download option. Lithified Detritus recommended this one:

Earth's Dynamic Systems

Earth’s Dynamic Systems.

 

Earth’s Dynamic Systems by Eric H Christiansen and W. Kenneth Hamblin.

I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s got a picture of Mount Rainier on the cover, so I like it already. It is free, which means I like it even more! The table of contents looks like it contains all the necessities. And it’s gone through ten editions, which might be a sign it’s a solid text. The authors were kind enough to make it available for free when the copyright reverted back to them. I’ll report back once I’ve read it, but if any of you give it a try first, let me know how it is!

Right. That should be enough to get you started. I’ll have book recs up for some more specific things soon – my shelves groan with excellent books, copies of which wish to come live with you.

Charles Southwell: “The Singularly Perverse Character of Human Intellect”

My reading of 18th and 19th century freethinkers continues apace. Charles Southwell – radical bookseller, socialist “missionary,” publisher, lecturer, Shakespearean actor – is an interesting read. He’s not quite as polished as many of the folks I’ve read, but once you’ve settled in and got up to speed, it’s a pleasant ride.

I’ve begun with Superstition Unveiled. I particularly loved this bit, where he takes off after those folks who absolutely insist on some kind of god being the eternal something that got the universe started:

It has always struck the author as remarkable that men should so obstinately refuse to admit the possibility of matter’s necessary existence, while they readily embrace, not only as possibly, but certainly, true, the paradoxical proposition that a something, having nothing in common with anything, is necessarily existent. Matter is everywhere around and about us. We ourselves are matter—all our ideas are derived from matter—and yet such is the singularly perverse character of human intellect that, while resolutely denying the possibility of matter’s eternity, an immense number of our race embrace the incredible proposition that matter was created in time by a necessarily existing Being, who is without body, parts, passions, or positive nature!

Right?

Also, this bit, which reminds me so much of the Christians I see today, screaming at atheists (which Southwell bundles together with universalists) that we haven’t got any morals, but they have, and then:

Oh yes, Christians are forward to judge of every tree by its fruit, except the tree called Christianity.

The vices of the universalist they ascribe to his creed. The vices of the Christian to anything but his creed. Let professors of Christianity be convicted of gross criminality, and lo its apologists say such professors are not Christian. Let fanatical Christians commit excesses which admit not of open justification, and the apologist of Christianity coolly assures us such conduct is mere rust on the body of his religion—moss which grows on the stock of his piety.

Has a familiar ring, doesn’t it just?

This Actually Is a Review of Victor Stenger’s New Book

Right. So. I promised a review of Victor Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion. Here it is.

God and the Folly of Faith. Cover Art credit Prometheus Books.

I kid. Although Mano Singham’s review is actually very good and straight-up and I recommend it. I’ll be playing the funny to his straight, as it were. Also, I’ll be focusing more on readers’ questions than on a regular old review.

I just want to start with a few words from the Doctor:

That’s pretty much how the vast majority of his book struck me. It’s lots and lots of physics. Proportionally, it’s probably not that much physics – there’s lots of other stuff in there, like the history of science and the birth of religion. There’s a big bit on Darwin and evolution, and what bad news that was for religion. There’s purpose, and transcendence, and neurology. Lots and lots of philosophy. Geology, even so! And awfully bad news for the woomeisters. Physics itself takes up a mere two chapters, along with mentions in several others. It’s just that those two chapters loom over the rest. As I said before, it’s been a long time since I studied physics, and those chapters were a tough slog. Tough, but fun, and I probably learned more in them than I had from all sorts of reading before.

So there’s the book in a nutshell, say a walnut. Here it is in a filbert: science is bad news for religion, the two aren’t compatible at all – no, not even the vague spirituality-type religions – and if you’re looking to physics to support your ideas about the supernatural, you’re barking up the wrong damned tree. Not even quantum supports your religion. It’s natural all the way down.

Right. On to reader questions.

Brad wished to know if it included a rebuttal of the idea that science depended upon the Judeo-Christian tradition in order to flower. Why, yes. Yes, it does: there’s a section called “Did Christianity Beget Science?” The answer, astonishingly, is no. Do try to contain your shock. Enjoy watching Victor trample all over the notion.

Kele Cable says, “I just started reading Stenger’s The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning (I got it for $4 for Kindle on a sale) and like this book it sounds like, there is just a ton of hard-to-understand physics in it.” True. However, mercifully little math. And the physics isn’t beyond someone who’s recently dipped in to tomes like A Brief History of Time. He really did try to dumb it down

Chris Hallquist says, “You say he’s read “On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat,” but has he read both the book of that title by Scotus and the one by Eriugena? Because if he hasn’t, then whichever one he hasn’t read, that will turn out to be the real one you need to read.” I get the impression from the text he has read and contemplated both, but of course, there’s some other book he hasn’t read that will invalidate every argument against religion until he’s read that one, and once he has, there will be that other other one, and so on, apologetics without end.

Graham wished to know if Victor credited Susan Blackmore’s work on NDEs. He did indeed, extensively. Dying to Live was cited several times: I counted at least three substantial mentions, and one walks away with the impression that Victor thinks very highly of Susan indeed.

Graham additionally wishes to know how Victor handled the case of China and its failure to develop science. Victor was spending most of his time on Christianity and the West, but he does argue (albeit briefly) that in China, strict government control stifled the development of science. He says that it was the “new openness in Europe that made science possible.” In other words: totalitarian states, whether theocratic or otherwise, are anathema to the birth of scientific thought.

Graham goes on to ask, “What does he say about Penrose’s ideas about quantum theory and consciousness…?” I’m afraid that, in a section entitled “The Quantum Brain,” Victor hands Roger his ass on a plate. I don’t think he’s impressed by the whole quantum brain thingy, and argues very effectively against it.

Right, then. That does for the reader questions, and excellent questions they were, too. We should do this more often. It’s more fun than a plain ol’ book review. It also makes me pay more attention to the text, which is all good.

You can stop here, if you like. I’m going to go on about some of my favorite bits.

In the Preface, Victor points out something rather important: “The conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason…. The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason.” He also points out that reason and logic need outside input. “Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.” Sums that up nicely, and also allows me to have a more fruitful conversation with my best friend, who prides himself on his ability to reason, yet can’t reason his way out of the Christian faith.

I loved what Victor said about NOMA: “Most nonbelieving scientists want to just do their research and stay out of any fights over religion. That makes the NOMA approach appealing because it allows these scientists to not worry much about what religion is or how it affects our social and political world. In my view, though, these scientists are shirking their responsibility by conceding the realms of morality and public policy to the irrationality and brutality of faith.” No mercy for NOMA. Me likey. He also asks an excellent question: “And if religion doesn’t work in the sphere of nature, why should we expect it to work in the moral or other spheres?” Why should we, indeed?

For those who insist there must be some vital force or other, Victor brings the hammer down in the chapter entitled “Purpose:” “None of the life sciences has ever found any difference in composition between living and nonliving matter. A living cell is made of the same quarks and electrons as a rock.” Sorry and all that. Some folks seem mightily disappointed that this is so. But, being a geology addict, I think it’s rather awesome we all share the same quarks and electrons.

One of the most powerful statements in the book comes in “Metaphor, Atheist Spirituality, and Immanence,” in response to the folks who claim that God is all-loving, but not one of the other alls, therefore God. “If God isn’t all-powerful, then he hasn’t the power to alleviate all suffering. If he isn’t all-knowing, then he may not know about every case of suffering. Notice, however, that science eliminated the suffering due to smallpox without being aware of every case and without being omnipotent. Certainly any benevolent god worth his salt could do a better job in easing suffering.” My italics. That, I think, is a knockout punch to the argument that a god of some sort exists and wants the best for all of us.

The book finishes with a powerful closing argument: “Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life…. Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.” Exactly. And Victor knows religion will never do that without help from the non-believers.

This book is an excellent tool for applying the needed pressure. No, it’s not perfect. Yes, it’s a tough go in some places. But there’s a lot of value in here. I found it clarifying my thoughts and, despite feeling like I hadn’t learned a thing during the reading, I’ve come away with a much better understanding of physics than I had before. It’s well worth your time.