Hard-wired for religious belief?

February 19, 2016

Based on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter 1), and also based on observation, I’ve long believed that we humans come by our belief in God or the gods as part of our “wiring.” A new book challenges that belief. In Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (Cambridge), Tim Whitmarsh argues that both theism and atheism have venerable pasts.

In one way this is nothing new. We’ve known for a long time that some of the ancient Greek philosophers did not believe in the gods. And religious faith seems to remain the default setting among the vast majority of humans. But if Whitmarsh is right, we cannot oversell that conclusion; the truth could be more complex than I, for one, have believed. (Isn’t it usually that way?)

And those on the other side of the aisle might need to adjust their rhetoric too. Atheists often picture religious belief as a product of early stages in human evolution, with atheism winning ground every day until all enlightened people will eventually disbelieve in the divine. The presence of atheists in the ancient world shows that model as too simplistic.

That’s all I’ll say because I haven’t read the book. A good summary of it appears on the University of Cambridge web site.

Pre-historical fiction

February 8, 2016

I’m reading Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), an author best known for his Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars). Shaman describes the life of a hunter-gatherer band of early humans through the eyes of Loon, a young boy who trains to become a shaman. I’ve read one or two of the Mars Trilogy, also Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, and so far I’ve enjoyed this one best.

Robinson writes leisurely, descriptive prose that moves the story slowly. He creates a sense of the land where the humans live, and he describes plausible habits of language and culture. One example: Robinson shows Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon humans living on the same land and sharing a complex relationship. The Cro-Magnons naturally call themselves People, and they call the Neanderthal Old Ones or Lunkheads. The two races sometimes visit one another’s camps, and at least once in the novel some People help out an injured Old One. But if the Old Ones catch you alone in the woods, they might kill you and eat you.

Joe Steele

January 26, 2016

Harry Turtledove does it again. The dean of alternative history imagines that Joseph Stalin’s parents immigrated to America before he was born, and he eventually becomes president of the United States instead of Franklin Roosevelt. It reminds me of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, although the politics of President Steele and Roth’s President Lindbergh differ a lot. Think it can’t happen here? Turtledove makes you wonder if maybe it could.

Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

January 23, 2016

I’m reading this book by James L Swanson (HarperCollins, 2006) that focuses entirely on the search for John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. A new edition, maybe just a reissue, came out in 2012 under the title Chasing Lincoln’s Killer.

A couple of impressions: first, I had not realized how deeply the search for the conspirators cut into Americans’ civil liberties. The authorities arrested dozens of people, broke into houses, and did all kinds of things that would not pass muster today. Also, if Booth had not broken his leg I think he would have gotten away.

This is addictive

January 22, 2016

A real-time map of births and deaths in The Atlantic.

The Eagles weep

January 18, 2016

Glenn Frey dead at 67. R.I.P.

Color photos from World War I

January 17, 2016

From the UK Daily Mail.

Mother Teresa’s prayer

January 12, 2016

I can’t guarantee the provenance of this writing, but I got it from National Review Online.

What happened when slaves and free men were shipwrecked together

January 7, 2016

A fascinating story from The Economist.

Gates of Fire

December 26, 2015

I just finished Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield (Doubleday, 1998), a fictional treatment of the battle of Thermopylae. Of course it’s fiction, but I think Pressfield understands the military virtues held by the Spartans. It’s a good read.


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