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The White Carnation
The White Carnation
by R. C. Sherriff
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dying to discover the truth, 11 Dec. 2013
This review is from: The White Carnation (Paperback)
This is the best kind of ghost story, one that is less concerned with the otherworldly and the afterlife and more about what's important in this life and in this world. R. C. Sherriff smuggles a moving human story into what is, on the face of it, an absurd situation. John Greenwood was, in life, a stockbroker dedicated to making money and is now, in death, the unlikeliest of ghosts. Still dressed in the dinner jacket and white carnation he was wearing when he was killed by a German flying bomb in 1944, he doesn't even look like a ghost. He also, against all the evidence, insists he's alive. In The Merchant of Venice, when Gratiano pleads with Antonio to let him play the fool, he doesn't see why "a man whose blood is warm within" should sit quietly by while life and love are there to be enjoyed. Greenwood is no "grandsire cut in alabaster" and yet his blood is cold within. In this play, Sherriff's central character has all the qualities - in both life and death - of a man of action and energy and is successful in every respect, except where it matters most: in love.

According to the doctor, "he responds intelligently to questions: his movements and reactions are perfectly normal, but there is no circulation and no heartbeat." As it dawns on Greenwood that he doesn't have to worry about getting older, that he now has all the time in the world, he realizes he can read all those books he never had the time for when he was too busy grubbing for money: "It's the permanent things that matter to me now. Fine music: great drama: philosophy: things that live for ever."

His initial contact is with officialdom, first a policeman, then the coroner, finally an eminent representative of the Home Office, who are all more concerned with bureaucratic issues rather than with big questions about what it's like on "the other side". This comically undercuts any tendency towards taking woo seriously, although the coroner does allude to scientists who "are prepared to accept the possibility of certain ghostly manifestations." For his part Greenwood hates "that sort of thing" and certainly doesn't believe in spiritualism. Sir Horace (from the Home Office) delivers the ruling that "an ectoplasm cannot under any circumstances be a British citizen." So, from being a wealthy, upstanding member of the community, poor Greenwood is now an illegal immigrant.

The coroner's niece, Lydia, has more interest in his personal story, and as a librarian is able to help him restock his library. Greenwood is looking forward to reading the classics, and remembers when he was alive and thought money was "the only wealth that mattered": "Funny that I had to die to discover the real truth."

It's the vicar who provides a surprisingly secular perspective. As played by Benjamin Whitrow in the excellent current production at the Finborough Theatre (a perfect foil to Aden Gillett's abrasive Greenwood), Mr Pendlebury is a gentle Church of England cleric who carries contraband bananas in his case rather than any arcane ecclesiastical paraphernalia. Indeed, he's something of a sceptic about "this exorcism business" and recounts a story of a house troubled by unaccountable knockings: the occupants called in a priest to hold a service of exorcism: "The knocking went on for a while, and then stopped. Actually it was the ballcock of an old cistern built into the wall of a disused attic." (In one of the many haunted house TV series that trouble our contemporary airwaves, it was the sceptics who discovered an air freshener producing the sound of a ghost sighing.)

Most revealing is Pendlebury's attempt at an explanation. He acknowledges "some kind of blindness of our understanding" and then draws an analogy with how sounds are communicated by means of wireless waves: the other world may move in some kind of wave like that, the delicate order of it all disturbed by some tiny upset: "Something may have given you a slight swerve that night". I don't know if Sherriff had read his Lucretius, but this idea of the swerve is a remarkably ungodly idea, since it privileges "a tiny thread of chance" above providence. (See Stephen Greenblatt's excellent The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.)

All this talk of ectoplasm and swerves doesn't provide any clue as to how the situation is going to be resolved. Sherriff, however, has a dramatic ace up his sleeve, a simple kiss, an action "that brings incredulous wonder" and that brings the play to a satisfying conclusion.


The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good
The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good
by Robert H. Frank
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.95

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Taxing our way to peace and prosperity, 10 Dec. 2013
(This is taken from my review of the hardcover edition: The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good.)

The cover of this splendid book shows two libertarian bull elk, locked in combat, celebrating their individual freedom to do just as they please. There is no meddling third elk, itching to regulate their behaviour. On the evolutionary timescale, the species has been locked in a costly and unwinnable arms race in antler size not of its choosing, in which any relative advantage gained by one side is soon matched by the other. Individual males would prefer antlers half as huge, but lack the capacity to act collectively. Instead of antlers, we humans have social rank, expressed in countless expensive ways, from cars to coming-of-age parties. Like the elk, we get locked into escalating consumption which, at the highest level, "is almost purely positional". Unlike the elk, we can come together for the common good, and work out how best to limit harmful activities and promote personal autonomy. The solution according to Robert H. Frank is the progressive consumption tax, and he invites rational libertarians to roll up their antitax and antigovernment banners and choose taxation over heavy-handed regulation as the way to cut waste.

Just in case getting libertarians to love taxes is not ambitious enough, Frank predicts "that economists a hundred years from now will be more likely to name Charles Darwin than Adam Smith as the intellectual founder of their discipline". This will strike even staunch Darwinians as a bold claim, and yet, intellectually, Darwin is linked to Smith via Malthus, and understanding competition for resources is key to natural selection. Even more relevant, Darwin revealed "a systemic flaw in the dynamics of competition" and "the failures he identified resulted not from too little competition, but from the very logic of the process itself". This leads to one of Frank's central themes: "as individuals we often face incentives that lead us to undermine the common good, and that to counteract these incentives, taxes are generally a far more efficient and less intrusive instrument than direct regulation".

The power of this Darwinian approach is that it allows Frank to grant "every traditional libertarian assumption" while still showing that the libertarian position collapses. For the sake of argument, he accepts that markets are perfectly competitive, that consumers are essentially rational, and that government may not restrict behaviour except to prevent undue harm to others. He adds only one substantive element - "namely the completely uncontroversial observation that many important aspects of life are graded on the curve" - and it's this observation that in the end proves fatal.

Frank concedes that the direct effect of paying any tax is to reduce your autonomy (which "is about being able to do what you want to do"). If those taxes produce public services of high enough value, however, the indirect effect of paying taxes will be to increase your autonomy. (Most of us would like to be able to cross a bridge without fear of it collapsing because public funds for maintenance ran out.) What matters is not the private-good/public-bad ideological split but how efficiently goals can be achieved. To this end, Frank recruits Ronald Coase (although often cited as a champion of libertarians, Coase was no ideologue). Following Coase's strictly pragmatic concerns, Frank argues that personal autonomy "will always be compromised unless all problems stemming from activities that cause harm to others are resolved efficiently". Failure to agree to the most efficient solution leaves everyone - libertarians included - worse off. Coase's "framework casts in sharp relief an underappreciated link between efficiency and autonomy" and shows how "efficiency is a prerequisite for maximum autonomy".

Those bull elk may have their autonomy, but they suffer the inefficiencies of carrying around heavy antlers and increased risk of predation by wolves. What they cannot organize but humans can are positional arms control agreements, which limit the harmful use of resources, freeing them up for more productive work. Critics who invoke the nanny state at this point must explain why getting more of what you want is a bad thing. (They would also have to explain who would replace the nanny: a disciplinarian patriarch? Or have no state at all and live in anarchy? This last option, as Steven Pinker shows in The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, is not recommended.)

I want to live in a society that discourages behaviours that cause more harm than good in the most efficient way possible. Harmful activities can be regulated, but a better solution, according to Frank, is to make them more expensive. (He addresses the legitimate concern that such a mechanism is unfair to the poor.) The beauty of the tax approach is that it "keeps total costs to a minimum while restricting options as little as possible" - it "doesn't forbid someone from doing what he wants; it merely makes doing it more expensive".

Frank acknowledges that "advocating new taxes in the United States has often been described as politically unthinkable". If he's right (and though I found his arguments persuasive, I'm not qualified to judge the technical detail) that a "well-designed tax system actually makes the economic pie larger", then economists and politicians ought to pay attention. Unfortunately, slogans such as "all taxation is theft" are often used not as shorthand for complex arguments but to mask their absence, and the response from many of the less rational libertarians will simply be to turn up the volume.

My fear is that in a country in which presidential candidates can endorse creationism with a straight face, where no politician running for office dares admit to having no religion, where Darwin is to many another name for the devil, proposing new taxes is the least of our worries: many will not even get past the title. The irony is that those who hate Darwin say they love the family, their community, the nation, and yet it is Darwin who showed us how "the interests of individual animals were often profoundly in conflict with the broader interest of their own species" and it is Robert Frank who shows us how "groups of mixed ability can form in which everyone fares better than each would as a member of a separate society of equals".


Ghosts
Ghosts
by Henrik Ibsen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rage against the dawning of the light, 5 Nov. 2013
This review is from: Ghosts (Paperback)
I was lucky to see Richard Eyre's production of this version at the Almeida Theatre shortly after seeing Stephen Unwin direct his new version at the Rose, and so this review is a companion to my review of Unwin's text (see Ghosts). In his introductory essay, Eyre describes the rough reception this play got in the 1880s: the "outcry of indignation against the attack on religion, the defence of free love, the mention of incest and syphilis." Booksellers were "embarrassed by the presence of the book on their shelves" and the original print run remained unsold (which goes to show that not all publicity is good publicity). Ibsen has outlasted his critics, however, and most importantly his plays continue to be performed. Eyre observes how Ibsen's great women characters "batter against convention and repression" and Helene Alving - the mother and widow at the heart of this play - is no exception.

When she asks Pastor Manders: "Do you think my husband was any more chaste than Johanne was when he stood beside me at the altar?" Manders replies: "That's utterly different." Mrs Alving here draws our attention to the double standards used in judging men and women who have affairs. She is also making a moral case, while Manders, the man of God and a man who prides himself on his moral acumen, sidesteps the moral issue and takes refuge in the biological differences between male and female. Although he is almost certainly ignorant of the science (he talks in terms of "God's design"), he happens to be right that extra pair copulation does serve different evolutionary strategies in mammalian species, but wholly wrong in his instinct that this fact could justify his double standard when it comes to a moral concept like "chastity".

A comparison of the language used in the Eyre and Unwin versions is instructive. In the opening scene Eyre doesn't hold back on the profanity: where Unwin chooses words like "hussy", "b-" and "that word" Eyre goes in for full-throttle swearing. I'm not sure Eyre's got this right: although most working-class men living in a seaport would no doubt swear like sailors, Jacob Engstrand is deferential towards figures of authority like Pastor Manders and he strives to be pious. Just as he would never swear in front of the vicar I don't think he would swear in Mrs Alving's house.

One of the first things Engstrand says in Unwin's version is "as God is my witness" - which is cut from this version, perhaps a victim of Eyre's desire to produce a text "spontaneous to an audience of today." If by this he means that few people today would use such a phrase in ordinary speech, he's obviously right. But so what? This isn't a contemporary play (although it does have contemporary relevance), and by treating this kind of language as dispensable he's actually throwing out an important cultural marker and a key to Engstrand's character. In her excellent Holy S***: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr writes that, while today swearing refers to both oaths and obscene words, "from the earliest Old English texts right to the end of the nineteenth century, the word swearing referred to oaths alone." (I'm assuming swearing followed a similar trajectory in Scandinavia.) According to Mohr, swearing in the biblical sense meant "calling on God to witness that a person is telling the truth" and while Eyre goes for the modern understanding of swearing Unwin's Engstrand more accurately reflects the historical belief.

Eyre asserts, rather unnecessarily, that all translations "make choices and the choices we make are made according to taste, to the times we live in and how we view the world." What counts, of course, is the quality of the choices made, and Eyre's choice to have a sweary Engstrand is I think to the detriment of the character and therefore not the best one he could have made. This is one of the reasons why I think Eyre's version, although very good, suffers in comparison with Unwin's, and is the weaker of two.

Elsewhere, Eyre is also not shy of introducing explicit references to religion. That Mrs Alving smokes a cigarette on stage marks her out as a bit of bohemian, but much more shocking is her conclusion: "God and the law! There you have the cause of all the misery in the world." This time, it's Unwin who leaves out God (he sticks to the law, and leaves us to infer the responsibility of the ultimate author of the law). Again, I think Unwin's is the more nuanced version. Although she is admirable in the way she develops her independent opinions and tries to think for herself, Mrs Alving is not a campaigning atheist like, for example, Harriet Law (who toured England in the 1860s, giving lectures on how religion oppressed women, and getting punched in the face by Christian men for her trouble).

The ending, too, is very different. [Spoiler alert] Eyre gives Oswald a final question - "Mama, where's the sun?" - which leaves no room for interpretation: we can see the rising sun, flooding the dining room with fiery red morning light, but all is darkness for Oswald. He's already blind, and clearly very ill. His mother retrieves the bottle of pills and the strong suggestion is that she hastens her son's death. Both Eyre and Unwin produce powerful and moving interpretations of Ibsen's ending. In both, the dawning of a new day supplies an extra poignancy, as we rage against the dying of Oswald's light.

Eyre's suspicion that we might be tempted to "bask in the glow of progress" and think ourselves superior to our 19th-century forebears is itself worryingly relativist. Of course we're superior in some respects, in ways in which artists like Ibsen and the many social reformers who also exposed unfairness and injustice would recognize and celebrate. Only by recognizing that moral progress is possible, and by recognizing that we are still flawed, is it worth making the effort to change what is wrong with the world. Indeed, Eyre himself, perhaps unwittingly, identifies a theme that is highly relevant to a modern audience: as with Chekhov, "Ibsen sees boredom and indifference as insidious viruses that infect all society." Fear of leisure, fear that we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves if we had more time, is one reason why we still work so hard in the affluent West, according to the Skidelskys in How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life. We may have reduced religion to an irrelevance and eradicated smallpox, but resisting the spread of the market society may prove as daunting a challenge as any we have faced, and the most important, for it cuts to the core of that most fundamental of questions: what is the good life?


Ghosts (Oberon Classics)
Ghosts (Oberon Classics)
by Henrik Ibsen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Is the Pastor comfortable?, 3 Nov. 2013
Stephen Unwin begins with an undated quote from William Archer (from around a century ago) about how Ibsen's fame relies almost exclusively on translations. In the past month I've been lucky to see two major productions of the play in London, in two very different new versions by acclaimed theatre directors. Unwin directed his version at the Rose Theatre in Kingston and Richard Eyre directed his version at the Almeida Theatre. Both productions were excellent, but in terms of the text I think Unwin's version shades it as the better of the two. For the reasons why, see my review of Eyre's Ghosts.

Here, I want to pick out a couple of details that point up Ibsen's critique of religion. While the young servant, Regina, is barely civil to her father, as soon as Pastor Manders arrives nothing is too much trouble. She is solicitous of his every need and even places a footstool under his feet. Such respect and deference are what the clergy expect in every community.

Comfortable, however, is what Manders rarely is, given his role as a moralizing policeman checking up on everyone else's behaviour. He's horrified by the books on Mrs Alving's table ("those terrible freethinkers and their vile, seditious books"), and tells her, "My dear Mrs Alving, there are some occasions in life when one should rely on the opinion of others." This is not just a northern Protestant fastidiousness; Catholics too are good at monitoring which books are fit for the faithful to read. Indeed, pretty much every religion must be on guard to prevent its followers from discovering too much about the world outside their sect. People must not be allowed to think too much for themselves.

In his implicit criticism of religious conformity, Ibsen echoes an epigram of his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche: "The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently." The last thing Pastor Manders wants to encourage is curiosity about religion: that way surely lies unbelief (see The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True for what happens when believers adopt an informed scepticism towards faith).

The working of his religious mind is brought out most bizarrely over the question of insuring the orphanage. Manders tells Mrs Alving about the "body of opinion" that would be shocked by what seems to us the perfectly reasonable expedient of taking out an insurance policy: "Well, they might conclude that we showed insufficient faith in divine providence."

[Spoiler alert] When the orphanage goes up in flames, Manders knows why: "How terrible. Mrs Alving, this fire is a judgment on this house of sin." In fact, Engstrand knows the real reason (the pastor didn't snuff out a candle properly, and the smouldering wick caused the fire), and once he's made this clear Manders changes his tune: "It was terribly bad luck all the same." Well, which is it? Providence or chance? These are logically exclusive explanations, and both can't be true. (For how the Lucretian denial of Providence aggravated Christians for centuries, see Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.)

The pastor, like the medieval priests who regarded the Black Death as a punishment for sin, seems perfectly content that God should wreak havoc in this way, although he doesn't relish being a direct instrument of God's wrath. In the end he changes his metaphysical tune to save his skin. Fortunately, he doesn't get the last word, which is Osvald's heartbreakingly brief paean to a different way of life: "The sun - the sun."


Summer Day's Dream (Oberon Modern Plays)
Summer Day's Dream (Oberon Modern Plays)
by JB Priestley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You can't go shopping for a good life, 18 Sept. 2013
An astonishing play, written by J. B. Priestley within a few years of the first atomic bombs and set in 1975, when the Third World War has reduced Britain to a shadow of its former imperial self and sent it backwards into a pre-industrial past. Stephen Dawlish and his family live a quiet rural life: there's birdsong, but no cars (because there's no petrol) and no "ringing and buzzing" of telephones (the system broke and hasn't been fixed). He's under no delusions about the greatness of post-apocalyptic Britain: "This is a little backwater of a country, no longer busy doing the world's work."

Britain is not so insignificant that it cannot be descended upon by foreign powers greedy for natural resources, not unlike the way Britain itself used to plunder other, weaker nations. When three representatives of the new rulers of the world - an American, an Indian and a Russian - crash land their helicopter near the Dawlish farm, the scene is set for a remarkable encounter of world views and values.

Stephen explains to Mr Heimer, the American executive, why he's not tempted to sell out: "You can't go shopping for a good life. You have to live it." What constitutes the good life is the ethical question we should be asking ourselves every day, or at least once in a lifetime. Should we "look after machines all day to pay for other machines to entertain us half the night"? Should we care about the places we have to ruin to manufacture all the "bits of rubbish" of a consumer-driven society? Stephen speaks for many of us today when he admits: "We all like gadgets and toys. But the price we have to pay, sooner or later, is too high."

Heimer dismisses such talk as "small-time and small-town stuff." Stephen retorts: "Nearly as small as the Florence of Leonardo and the London of Shakespeare and Bacon, Mr Heimer." As if to illustrate his point, two of his grandchildren, Chris and Rosalie, come in from their work on the farm and lark around rehearsing Shakespeare. Chris does Caliban's famous Olympics "the isle is full of noises" speech and Rosalie helps him learn his lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Their creative life is a natural part of their daily life, not a cultural add-on for the purpose of passing an exam or impressing the neighbours. How can they find the time? A "whole lot of dusty stuff has dropped out."

Stephen explains that the beer Heimer is enjoying so much is "brewed by a local man who likes beer." This sums up a philosophy of work that most of us, it seems, can only envy and not emulate in the modern world (although microbreweries up and down the country are now rediscovering this style of work).

This localism is more than a slogan: it's being lived by the Dawlish family and their neighbours, out of necessity. The change has also exposed the lie that they were living in a democracy: "to make anything big work properly, you have to have a tremendous concentration of power. And where you have this concentration of power, there's no democracy." Again, this rings true today.

The Indian scientist, Dr Bahru, is a fascinating character, an admirable champion of science and an opponent of ignorance and superstition. His flaw, typical of the postwar period and still sadly around today, is to separate his scientific work from his moral responsibility. Margaret pulls him up on this, and she rightly emphasizes that scientists should not hide behind "that dangerous lie." In fact, she anticipates the work of Robert Hinde, who writes eloquently in Bending the Rules on ethics and science: "scientists are part of society and their work affects and is affected by the social context in which they live."

Bahru sticks up for science: "You cannot understand what science and industry have meant to us in India. There was so much ignorance, filth, superstition, poverty. I am proud to be an Indian scientist, Mrs Dawlish." The recent murder of Indian rationalist and sceptic Dr Narendra Dabholkar shows how India is still full of superstition in the 21st century. It's worth remembering the nasty side of mysticism as a counterweight to Margaret's talk of "angels and goddesses" and her lame idea that "the best knowledge we have is in our hearts and not in our heads."

The final foreigner is Madame Irina Shestova, perhaps the most intriguing of the three visitors, and certainly the character who experiences the most radical transformation as a result of her contact with the Dawlish family.

As in his far more famous play, An Inspector Calls, J. B. Priestley writes about another time (looking forwards in Summer's Day Dream rather than backwards) to create a commentary on his own day. Because he deals with big ideas - money, work, power - and the universals of love and loss, and because he is a great dramatist, these plays can speak to us today. At least, that was my experience this week when I saw the superb production directed by Alex Marker at the Finborough Theatre.


The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion is True
The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion is True
by John W. Loftus
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keeping believers honest, 3 Sept. 2013
Early on in this uncompromising examination of religious belief, John Loftus asks a simple question: How does, say, a non-Christian become a Christian? More generally, how does a non-X become an X, where X is any religion you care to name? Faith will certainly take you across the boundary separating the non-Christian from the Christian, but it will also take you across every other conceivable boundary as well. Why doesn't the Christian (who is also a non-Muslim, a non-Hindu, etc.) take a leap of faith to any one of the hundreds of other religions on offer? For the simple reason that Christians are sceptical of all belief systems, apart from their own.

Loftus sees a double standard here, and he draws an important distinction between a believer's faith-based scepticism and the reasonable or informed scepticism that begins, in all humility, with a presumption that one's own religious faith is probably false. (Tim Minchin's "Thank You God" brilliantly sums up the sheer improbability of the particular god believed in at a particular time and in a particular place being the actual ruler of the universe.)

This informed scepticism should be the default adult attitude when examining any religion: "(1) it assumes one's own religious faith has the burden of proof; (2) it adopts the methodological-naturalist viewpoint by which one assumes there is a natural explanation for the origins of a given religion, its holy books, and it's [sic] extraordinary claims of miracles; (3) it demands sufficient evidence before concluding a religion is true; (4) it disallows any faith in the religion under investigation, since the informed skeptic cannot leap over the lack of evidence by punting to faith."

Gathering "sufficient evidence" is often a difficult business, which is why "punting to faith" is so popular. Loftus insists, however, that the "only way someone can objectively place a reasonable trust in the existence of one's deity, and that he cares, is with sufficient evidence that he exists and that he cares." Faith has nothing to do with this kind of trust. (Recall that the religious meaning of faith as belief without evidence is diametrically opposed to the secular meaning of faith as trust relying on some degree of evidence.) "Probabilities are all that matter." (For a relevant exploration of why probabilities are all that matter in history, see Richard Carrier's Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.)

Loftus makes a strong case that the "only way to rationally test one's culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject." He develops the case for a sceptical approach by appealing to the "religious diversity thesis" (put simply, your parents and your birthplace determine your religion) and the "religious dependency thesis" ("religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns").

These are well-established facts, supported by a wide range of scholarship beyond the sources cited by Loftus. For example, as Stephen Greenblatt notes in The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, the "wide diversity of opinion about the most important religious questions" was remarked upon by Cicero, and is even more obvious today as we gain more knowledge about the world's religions. Cutting across this diversity are universal factors (such as cognitive biases), which can influence the formation of specific beliefs. In Why Gods Persist: A Scientific Approach to Religion, Robert Hinde studies the maintenance of religious beliefs and notes that "selective attention, selective interpretation and discrediting contradictory information are particularly conspicuous." As Loftus himself concludes, it makes a huge difference whether one approaches the available evidence "through the eyes of faith, as an insider, or with the eyes of skepticism, as an outsider, a nonbeliever."

Those believers who bristle at the idea that "faith is always unreasonable" would do well to remember that they "reject the faiths of other religions precisely because they are faith-based." What is so astonishing and powerful about the outsider test is its simplicity in pointing up this double standard. Whether believers will take the outsider test remains to be seen, but it's the only way they can be kept "honest regarding their own faith."


Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing
Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing
by Melissa Mohr
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Looking for oppljf, 31 July 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
If you prefer your swearwords bleeped, then best not judge this brilliant book by its cover, since the huge asterisk has few companions in the text (and they're used as footnote markers). Melissa Mohr holds nothing back in this fascinating history, unlike the linguists and lexicographers of previous generations who would often act as if these words simply didn't exist. For the purposes of this review, however, I shall choose my quotes carefully, mindful of filters that can be more sensitive than a Victorian churchwarden. Otherwise, even troopers and other professionals proverbially inclined to profane language might raise an eyebrow.

A single huge asterisk is actually a fitting symbol to appear on the cover, since it resembles the chi-rho symbol of early Christianity. Before we turn a page, one of the main themes of the book - the relationship over time between religion and language - is subtly signposted.

Today, to many people, swearing means bad language, something to be avoided in polite company or on live television. In the past, words that we would consider taboo were not offensive, because swearing meant something very different. In the Bible, for example, swearing an oath meant "calling on God to witness that a person is telling the truth or intending to fulfil a promise." Indeed, "swearing is the foundational act of the Jewish and Christian faiths" and something that even Yahweh himself does. There's an important difference between sincere oaths, which called on God as a witness, and vain oaths, which were thought to injure him. Either way, oaths "remained the most shocking, most highly charged language in the Middle Ages".

Here is the clue as to what characterizes all kinds of swearing: emotional force. It's not bureaucratic or scientific language but language freighted with emotional associations. Mohr introduces two linguistic terms that should be more widely appreciated by all users of language (that is, pretty much everyone): connotation "is a word's baggage" including the various feelings the word might provoke, while denotation is "its dictionary definition." Thus, a word can have "an offensive power in excess of its literal meaning" whenever it's "used for its connotation, not its denotation." Swearwords are often employed in a non-literal sense and are almost all connotation: "they carry an emotional charge that exceeds the taboo status of their referents."

Clearly, in the Middle Ages, in an Age of Faith, many people literally believed in a God who would strike down liars and allow honest men to flourish. Feelings would naturally run high if you thought the fate of your everlasting soul were on the line. Without supernatural sanction, however, oaths were nothing but empty words, and the sixteenth century was "a turning point in the history of swearing in English": the Holy was beginning to decline in power, and more familiar obscenities were gaining in power.

By the time we reach the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Church was still very rich and politically powerful, "but religion occupied a less central role in the average person's life" as evidenced by falling church attendance. People were less worried about whether they might be injuring God's body and more concerned to find alternatives for the word "trousers" (which were in close proximity to a very different kind of body part). Writing in code also became fashionable in the nineteenth century (although it is to be hoped that the rules used were more subtle than the one responsible for the above strapline). Asterisks are not the only way to disguise meaning from prying and prurient eyes.

In the mid-twentieth century, another change began, "as sexual obscenities themselves started to lose power to a new class of obscene words - the racial slurs." Scientists were increasingly able to study swearing and conditions like Tourette's syndrome without having their work censored. Brain science made progress. The right half of the brain was discovered to be responsible for non-propositional speech, such as swearwords, while the left hemisphere looks after propositional speech ("words strung together in syntactically correct forms to create an original meaning").

The emotional content of words - their connotations, as opposed to denotations - is not, however, located in one hemisphere or brain region. Swearing is a complex activity that combines both "left and right brain, executive and lower functions." Of course, we must be careful when tracing causal pathways from, say, the amygdala to our experience of getting hot under the collar whenever we hear an obscenity, and Mohr is duly cautious.

This is a fascinating book, which draws upon physiological, linguistic and historical fields of research. Melissa Mohr has distilled a huge amount of knowledge but not allowed it to cramp her style. For some, she might be a tad too enthusiastic about swearing and swearwords, which "were and are perhaps the best words we have with which to communicate extremes of emotion, both negative and positive." For me, I thoroughly enjoyed her erudition and her enthusiasm.


The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began
The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began
by Stephen Greenblatt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Godless wonder, 25 July 2013
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In the early 15th century, Poggio Bracciolini, who had been a cynical papal secretary in the service of a famously corrupt pope, followed his true passion of book hunting and rediscovered an ancient Latin poem in a German monastery. His exploits earned him the admiration of his humanist friends: he was "a culture hero, a magical healer who reassembled and reanimated the torn and mangled body of antiquity." To us, his achievement was to rescue from obscurity and from possible destruction the one surviving copy of De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), written by Lucretius in the first century BCE. Poggio himself is now at least as obscure as Lucretius, and so, in this tremendous account of a philosophical idea, Stephen Greenblatt must invigorate two remote periods in order to tell a fascinating story, which turns out to be as much about our modern selves as it is about long-dead historical figures.

For Lucretius, the stuff of the universe was "an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space" and not the handiwork of the gods. He did not believe in miracles, and thought that nothing could violate the laws of nature. Instead of divine agency animating the universe he posited what he called a "swerve" - "an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter." The core of his vision was "a single incandescent idea: that everything that has ever existed and everything that will ever exist is put together out of indestructible building blocks, irreducibly small in size, unimaginably vast in number": in other words, atoms.

This gives a flavour of the poem's scientific subject matter, and why a physicist and an atheist like Victor Stenger should be interested. (I have him to thank for prompting me to read The Swerve, which got a favourable mention in God and the Atom.) It is the way Lucretius imbues his scientific vision of the world with a poet's sense of wonder that is most remarkable, however. This wonder "did not depend on gods and demons and the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else." He sounds like the Brian Cox of the ancient world, only with a better grasp of Latin hexameters.

Lucretius was an inspired follower of the earlier philosopher, Epicurus, whom he regarded as liberating humanity from superstition. The Epicurean checklist is thoroughly sceptical, in the best sense: "to question authorities and challenge received doctrines; to legitimate the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain; to imagine that there are other worlds beside the one that we inhabit; to entertain the thought that the sun is only one star in an infinite universe; to live an ethical life without reference to postmortem rewards and punishments; to contemplate without trembling the death of the soul." It certainly contains values and beliefs at odds with the prevailing piety of the ancient world, and with the Christianity that would soon displace paganism. Christians from Tertullian on sought to destroy this philosophy, and for a thousand years they got their way. As Greenblatt puts it, in "one of the great cultural transformations in the history of the West, the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure."

By the time the humanist scholar Poggio was travelling Europe hunting for manuscripts buried deep with monastic libraries, Christianity had long since crushed all opposition. These pious communities were the opposite of the philosophical academies of Greece or Rome. In monasteries, curiosity - one of the primary scientific and sceptical values - "was to be avoided at all costs." For this, and for many other reasons, Poggio himself did not like monks, although he appreciated their role in preserving ancient texts.

The monks overseeing this preservation would certainly not have appreciated the Lucretian denial of Providence and the afterlife, the twin pillars of the poem, nor the idea that it is human insignificance that is in fact the good news. Also important for the modern world was the Lucretian approach to ignorance: he did not claim to know the hidden code of matter, only that there was a code and that, in principle, it could be investigated and understood by human science. The order in the world was not the product of any divine scheme but of natural processes. Greenblatt concludes that, by rediscovering De rerum natura, Poggio "became a midwife to modernity."

Being "liberated from harmful illusions is not the same as disillusionment." Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder. The realization that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else is not the cause for despair, but is the crucial first step towards the possibility of happiness.

Not everything dreamt up by our forebears has stood the test of time, of course. While Stenger makes a good case for acknowledging the atomism of ancient Greek philosophy, Lucretius also believed that the swerve was the source of free will, that "if all of motion were one long predetermined chain, there would be no possibility of freedom." This is philosophically naive, since random motion does not add up to freedom of the kind we're interested in.

The importance of the swerve is more as an image for this moment at the beginning of the Renaissance, when, after a millennium and more of Christian supremacy, we started to shift away from superstition and towards reason. This was no handbrake turn, of course, more like the manoeuvring of a supertanker, and it never depended on a single document. That said, Poggio's hand on the wheel represented a significant change of direction, and the new course is one we are still striving to follow. A terrific book.


God and the Atom
God and the Atom
by Victor J. Stenger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.98

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Atomism is atheism, 22 July 2013
This review is from: God and the Atom (Hardcover)
The title of Victor Stenger's latest book contains an intriguing pairing: the G-word is there, up against of all things the atom. Current debates between believers and non-believers often become heated, but rarely over the role of atoms in religion. Only when we take a longer, historical perspective can we see what's at stake. Far from simply being a neutral (albeit fascinating) part of modern science, Stenger argues that atomism is atheism.

He begins 25 centuries ago with two ancient philosophers, Leucippus and Democritus, whose atomic theory can be summed up in a simple phrase: "atoms and the void." Everything is made of atoms, even gods and the soul. Stenger then turns to two later figures (still BCE), the Greek philosopher Epicurus and the Roman poet Lucretius, who developed the teachings of Democritus in important ways. With the rise of Christianity, these materialist works were suppressed for a thousand years.

Christian philosophers also went to some trouble to misrepresent and vilify Epicureanism, and while a few could admire the poetic achievement of The Nature of Things (Penguin Classics) by Lucretius, the ideas contained within the elegant Latin hexameters were anathema: the message of this poem was "atheistic and materialistic, denying the existence of anything magical or supernatural, including an immortal soul, and proclaiming the evils of religion." (For more on Epicurus and Lucretius, see Stephen Greenblatt's excellent The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.)

Taken out of its philosophical context, the particulate nature of matter doesn't seem like a radical concept, something to be condemned from the pulpit. Whereas Darwinian evolution might threaten a believer's understanding of human nature, the Higgs boson is innocent of all atheistical interpretation, until, that is, we remember that the Higgs is actually the latest vindication of a thoroughgoing reductionist materialism.

Stenger repeats a point made by many writers, that "the history of science is marked by the continual overthrow of common sense." There is a profound irony here: naturalism is far from natural. Atomism might be textbook physics now but, as well as being condemned for religious reasons, it was also once resisted by many of the best scientific thinkers, and for very good reasons. After all, before the 20th century there was no direct empirical proof that atoms actually existed. In the 17th century, Pierre Gassendi rehabilitated both Epicurus and the atomic model, which was especially unusual since he was both a priest and "a strict empiricist". (This supports Richard Popkin's judgement in The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza that Gassendi was "one of the major figures in the scientific revolution".)

Even by the 19th century, most physicists (including James Clerk Maxwell) doubted the existence of atoms and some (notably Ernst Mach) were harsh in their opposition. Against this sceptical - and mistaken - consensus, "Boltzmann would be the primary champion of the atomic theory of matter and provide the theoretical foundation based on statistical mechanics".

One of Stenger's aims in this book "is to demonstrate the great extent of our current knowledge of the nature of the matter in our universe." With chapters on "the chemical atom" and "atoms revealed" he does a good job of marshalling this knowledge, although he also includes details that will make little sense to most lay readers, even those with science degrees. (Try this for size: "Gluons emitted by quarks in the protons interact to make a Higgs boson.") The historical and philosophical context he sketches is one of the book's strengths. Atomism originated in the ancient world as part of a broader materialist philosophy, which was eclipsed - although never obliterated - first by Platonic notions and then by a Christianity that could not tolerate such ideas.

Stenger has a taste for the kind of philosophy that "performs a valuable service in clarifying and interpreting scientific results." His long career as an experimental particle physicist and his prolific second career as an eloquent advocate of the new atheism make him a discriminating guide to the history of sceptical and scientific ideas. He shows that atomism, like scepticism, has deep roots, and he shows how it eventually emerged from the long shadow of supernaturalism to become an essential part of our scientific understanding of the universe. Just what that means for the G-word remains to be fully explored, but this book is a good starting point.


Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith
Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith
by Richard Carrier Ph.D.
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.80

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absentee mom, 12 May 2013
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There will be some uncharitable readers who will find the answer they're looking for in the very first sentence and stop right there: "I'm cognitively defective." Apparently, this is what many Christians tell Richard Carrier when they meet him. As well as being monumentally rude, it's obviously not true (like so much else of what they say). Here, he answers insult with reason, and gives a short, pared-down account of the real reasons he is not a Christian. Whereas in his other books (also highly recommended) he does not stint on scholarly reference to back up his arguments, this is more personal, with only a short bibliography for further reading (including Jesus Interrupted and The Christian Delusion). The titles of the four main chapters capture the salient points: God Is Silent, God Is Inert, Wrong Evidence, Wrong Universe. Each alone is enough to reject Christianity. Taken together, the miracle is why anyone remains a Christian.

"It should be indisputably clear what God wants us to do, and what he doesn't want us to do." So why are the Gospels disputed? (Witness the endless wrangling over not only the meaning of the Bible but what the text actually is; see, for example, Misquoting Jesus.) Why does the New Testament contain forgeries? (See, for example, Forged.) The fact "that God hasn't spoken to us directly, and hasn't given us all the same, clear message, and the same, clear answers, is enough to prove Christianity false."

A God who was "good" in the same sense that he expects us to be good would "necessarily desire and have the unimpeded means to do everything you and I can do, and therefore the Christian God would at least do everything you and I do. The fact that he doesn't proves he doesn't exist." If we stood around and let our children suffer when we could do something to prevent their suffering, it would be "felony criminal neglect God. Yet that is God: An absentee mom".

"Christians can offer no evidence at all for their most important claim, that faith in Jesus Christ procures eternal life." The Gospels are "by unknown authors of unknown date using unknown sources and methods to document wildly unbelievable claims we wouldn't trust from any other religion" and even if these claims could be proved "it still would not follow that belief in Jesus saves us." And if we consider "all the evil, misery, and torment that has been caused by the Christian religion" it could be argued that the evidence actually supports Stephen Law's evil god hypothesis (Believing Bullshit).

Finally, "if there is no God, then the universe we actually observe is exactly the sort of universe we would expect to observe." The kind of universe a Christian God would design would be very different to the one we're living in. "Nature would be governed by survival of the kindest," for example, "not survival of the fittest."

Some people are not Christians because they believe in another god altogether, or they may never have thought about it or even have some very bad reasons. Richard Carrier is not such a person, and the four reasons for rejecting Christianity he's selected out of the many possible are ones we can all understand. Also important is his effective strategy of thinking in terms of the "Christian theory of the world" and then showing how a particular aspect of this theory is conclusively falsified by the evidence. Some Christians will of course prefer to retreat in the face of advancing reason and pop back into the black hole of faith. For the rest, for those content to merely profess their faith, they may still be within reach and worth trying to draw back into the fold of reason, using the arguments in this excellent little book.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 22, 2013 11:14 PM BST


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