Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

(content note: murder, gets a bit grisly in places, no pictures or anything, it’s basically fine)

A lot of contemporary pop culture is about terrible people doing appalling things.

This is not new or surprising. I mean, real life is so lovely and free of conflict these days, it’s only natural we’d seek out stories of sadism and cruelty as a way to escape the comfortable banality of our everyday lives.

Ahahaha. Oh, what frivolity. Such larks.

Anyway, we’re obviously used to seeing villains and antagonists committing vile acts of evil and terror – killing people, subjugating and enslaving whole populations, and the rest – before being soundly and rightly defeated by the brave heroes. But since they’re not generally the obviously relatable characters we’re meant to empathise with, getting into those bad guys’ heads can be fascinating.

But while it’s written under the guise of “exploring a dangerous and twisted yet still distinctly human and underappreciated mindset”, I’ve noticed distressingly often these kinds of narratives reading like some sort of lefty/liberal revenge fantasy, in a way that’d be creepy and sinister and utterly objectionable if the political allegiances were switched.

And I sometimes wonder how much these “explorations” are genuinely about finding the humanity in someone different from you – finding something human to connect with in a character whose motives and values in general appal and disgust you – and how much they’re about indulging the part of you that kinda does just want to murder people.

You’re not a monster, though, so they’d have to be people whose values seriously disagree with yours – maybe over a political issue like gay rights, or something else far more important than the ethics of killing other people.

The obvious example from TV is Dexter. He killed a lot of people, which we’re not supposed to be okay with. But he also had a career and a family and we liked him. And a crucial part of that dichotomy was the moral code he lived and killed by. The show was pretty inconsistent in dealing with what really drove him and why he felt compelled to limit his killing to those who “deserved” it, to the extent that he did. But importantly, the code was something we could relate to. The people he killed were often themselves murderers, or violent thugs, or rapists, and often tended to be casually homophobic and misogynistic and racist.

In other words, they’re people you don’t mind seeing die horribly. You wouldn’t want to actually kill them yourself, in the real world, obviously – but when you’re watching Dexter, you can kinda get behind him.

And this seems to matter. Dexter’s not a relatable anti-hero because of the contrast between his uncontrollable sociopathic violence and all the other delightful, human, recognisable, charming aspects of his character. We don’t see the good in him and wish he could somehow conquer this one horrifying flaw. Instead, the thing that should be his least likable, most alienating aspect is the primary draw. The fact that he’s a serial killer is shaped such that it’s a positive factor in itself.

In Christopher Brookmyre’s book Snowball In Hell, the viewpoint narrator throughout much of the text is a charming and witty serial killer, who targets a right-wing newspaper columnist and goes to great lengths enacting an elaborately ironic revenge fantasy. (Think Saw, but without the grisly “appreciate your life more” parables.) The book expresses contempt and disdain for the homophobic xenophobic bigot and his inhumane views, it marshals a rational argument against them through our charismatic narrator and ridicules them for the vacuous nonsense they are, and then the main character tortures him to death.

The message, at least in part, seems to be that despising and wishing ill on an asshole with hateful politics is not only wholly reasonable and appropriate, but also not that big a step from sadistically making them suffer and ending their life.

Even the main protagonist’s reaction when she hears about this brutal killing is basically “Well, I’ll try to solve this crime and catch the bad guy, because that’s the technically correct thing to do and it’s my job, but I’m not in any way sorry that shithead’s dead.” Because, you know. Why mourn the malicious and vindictive snuffing out of a human life if they’d said some horrible things about gay people? For all that the murdered journalist was portrayed as appallingly intolerant, he was never so unable to tolerate someone else’s lifestyle or opinions that he slit their throat and let them bleed to death while they begged for mercy. The guy who does that to people is cool and suave; the bigot is just gross.

The narrator-murderer also gives us enough of a direct diatribe about his infuriation with things like manufactured pop music and reality TV, that I’m not convinced we aren’t meant to be going along with it and continuing to agree with his worldview. If it’s really just a satire on the ideas he’s espousing, it’s played very straight and a large part of the audience are going to be taking it literally, missing the satire in ways the author has no excuse not to have seen coming.

It becomes more clearly self-aware further in, I think, but this character’s fashionably cynical perspective provides around 100 of the first 150 pages, and it doesn’t feel at all as if it’s supposed to be alienating or other or different. We’re meant to connect with his contempt, it’s meant to tap in to the way other people feel.

Which could support the argument that he’s satirising the danger of that whole lefty-liberal revenge fantasy thing, except it’s still just played too straight for me to buy that explanation. He’s not writing American Psycho here. That book – if I’ve in any way understood anything (not a given) – was about the frustrations of modern corporate life, and how close to psychotic murder are a lot of the emotions it genuinely induces, in huge numbers of people. It was about the disconnectedness that its protagonist felt, and it was really saying yes, this destructive force might be in you too, or at least not so far from home, and that should worry and unnerve you because this is not a nice person.

Whereas Brookmyre’s attitude seems closer to: Hey, this guy is kinda like you, only he gets to kill those people you pretend you don’t hate. Fun!

It feels like these kinds of stories aren’t really about getting into the head of someone truly alien, whose desires and feelings and thought processes are beyond us, so that we can try to understand someone with a completely different worldview from our own. The message is that these psychotic murderers aren’t that different from you, and you should feel fine about that. Their moral code is almost always understandable to a large degree – they’re offended by the same things you are, they’re impatient with bigotry and injustice just like you – but they have this extra aspect to them that means killing people is permitted. They’re still likable and charming and you’re inside their head because of the way the story’s told, but rather than helping to normalise the other, what this does is make the angry, violent, murderous feelings buried under your supposedly benevolent worldview seem understandable and human and maybe even not so morally wrong.

Murder isn’t treated as a moral evil in the same way as, say, writing disparaging things about gay people and immigrants in a newspaper column, or objectifying women, or sometimes simply “being arrogant”. It’s not that these aren’t really bad things; the point is that they’re not as bad as murder, yet they often feel like they’re even worse, so long as it’s the right kind of murder. We’re coaxed into empathising with murderous protagonists all the time, but there are certain rules; you can’t kill any children, it’s generally safer to stay away from women, and you have to have a wry quip for every occasion. It’d be more of an actual challenge to make a relatable protagonist out of a bullying homophobic jerk than a socially liberal assassin. Persuading us to understand someone’s humanity would be trickier if you let them consistently and carelessly break that kind of viscerally understood cardinal sin.

In Brookmyre again, while we’re following the murderer-narrator and still finding him kinda dashing and charming, there always has to be some lefty-acceptable reason for the people he kills – a racist comedian, a vapid bimbo WAG. Somehow it’s never just an actual innocent who doesn’t deserve it who gets killed while we’re watching him be all suave and charming about it. If we couldn’t other and dehumanise the victim based on their politics, then their murder might start to feel like a real tragedy.

There’s an element of the same issue in the film of Kingsman. You know the scene I’m talking about (unless you don’t, in which case do catch up), and it is quite breathtaking, but the purpose in making those people Westboro Baptist proxies seems to have been to make sure we’re less distracted when they get slaughtered, letting us revel more joyously in the carnage. Which I totally do, that scene is fucking incredible and just typing a sentence about it has made me have to go and watch this amazing edit again as a substitute for revisiting the whole film – but it’d be harder to enjoy the beautifully shot ultraviolence if the people getting killed weren’t homophobic and racist bigots. Which says something uncomfortable about the value I seem to place on the lives of other humans when it turns out they’re not keen on gay people.

I’m not sure what the answer is to any of this. I’m not sure there’s even a coherently posed question. And I haven’t even mentioned Hannibal.

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Hyperbrief summary: Conservatives are disingenuous about their views on government intervention and liberals fall for it.

Recommended?: Yep, especially as it’s available free.

Dean Baker is an impressively credentialled American economist. He’s written a bunch of books, many of which are downloadable for free from his website. The subtitle of this one represents what seems a common theme in his work: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. Its basic idea is something that’s been seeming increasingly obvious to me for a while now, as I grow incrementally less dumb and ignorant about politics and economics.

According to the popular narrative, left-wing liberals believe that there are things we can’t get done as a society without relying on government to do them for us, whereas right-wing conservatives support independence, personal autonomy, and minimising government interference in lives of citizens. The public debate is commonly framed in these terms, and both sides tend to argue as if from this premise.

In fact, this is an entirely inaccurate basis for discussion, and liberals regularly leave themselves at a massive disadvantage by capitulating to this idea, allowing conservatives to claim a monopoly on fundamental American concepts like freedom and independence. Conservatives want and demand state intervention in the “free market” as much as anyone, generally to further entrench and concentrate the money and power of the rich and powerful.

One of the book’s main strengths is the consistent recognition that the way things are right now is not the only way they could possibly be. In numerous areas of life, there are clearly major drawbacks to our current way of doing things, and it’s our responsibility to be open to the possibility of substantial change. (I mean, he could do with turning that healthy revolutionary attitude up a notch on subjects like taxes, but in general it’s pretty good, and a lot better than most mainstream conversation.) The intended purpose and substantial downsides to our current systems are examined rigorously, and it’s sensibly analytical about the positives and pitfalls of alternative approaches.

It’s efficient in its writing, more than being particularly charming or witty, or otherwise infused with the author’s personality. Which isn’t really meant as a criticism, just something I noticed in comparison with most other books I’ve encountered that attempt to do a similar job. If you aren’t expecting too much of a casual chat, but want to see someone making their point articulately and concisely, it’s a good read.

One drawback for me was the way the word “state” is almost never used throughout the book without the word “nanny” preceding it. I get that this phrase is what summarises the thesis behind each individual argument, and he’s essentially right about all of it, but referring quite so often to “nanny state conservatives” as the people supporting the policies he argues against starts to feel like unnecessary name-calling – especially when “nanny state” becomes an inappropriate metaphor for what he’s describing.

I’ve never liked it that much anyway, as a term for an over-meddling government. Nannies are people we hire to come into our homes and provide a vital service looking after our children. They might have a stereotypical image as overbearing and overprotective, but that’s not inherent to the job, and they only exist because the tiny humans they’re looking after would be in serious danger of harm or death if a nanny wasn’t around to keep them safe. I guess the idea is that children are genuinely helpless, and need someone to take basically full responsibility for their lives, which is what some people act as if they want the government to do for all of us, but it still feels a bit weak as an epithet, especially when so overused.

Most of the time it’s not so bad, because the over-bearing intervention of the state is the correctly identified problem. But there are times when it talks about the wrong sort of intervention, or even when the government refuses to meddle in ways the book thinks it should – to let rich people get away with things in ways the less privileged wouldn’t be allowed to, say – at which point the overbearing nanny allegory entirely fails.

It’s not like his criticisms of government policy are suddenly any less valid or acutely observed at these points, but the patriarchal actions of a “nanny state” aren’t a good descriptor for the problem.

I was especially interested in the section on Social Security in the US, and how it compares to other systems. According to the figures cited, the administration costs of running Social Security are around 0.5% of the tax revenue that pays for it, compared to a figure of 15-20% of revenue going toward admin costs in privatised social security systems, such as in the UK.

Embarrassingly, given that I’ve worked in the field for several years, I had to google the name of the paper in the citation to figure out that the UK’s “privatised social security system” refers to pensions, in particular the system by which insurance companies sell annuities. (My mind only went to the socialised free-at-point-of-use NHS, which was more of a given when this book was published in 2006.)

But he’s obviously right that all the costs associated with being an annuity provider, such as executive pay and advertising and whatnot, are hugely inefficient. It’d never occurred to me to make the direct comparison to the US’s government system of Social Security; I’m going to need to read up on this in order to better understand the distinctions.

The Conservative Nanny State is a free e-book available on the author’s website. If you have any kind of political investment or personal leanings as regards liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any of the ways humanity attempts to get its shit together, you’ve got no excuse not to read this and learn some more about how the system you think you understand actually works.

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There’s a new book released today – on World Book Day, no less! – called Jessica’s Ghost, by Andrew Norriss. It’s a book which you should buy for any young people you know, but also read it first yourself before you give it to them, so that you get to read it before they do. It’s the Book of the Week over at Books for Keeps, and hey, I’ve just decided it’s Book of the Week right here at Cubik’s Rube as well. That’s two major plaudits in one paragraph! The buzz around this thing is electrifying.

It’s the latest book from a successful and long-standing children’s author with an impressively hefty back catalogue, who’s won various awards for his writing over the years, but more importantly is also really good at it.

(Any resemblance between his surname and my own is purely non-coincidental.)

So, here’s the thing about books and stories and film and Art in general: it’s supposed to make you feel something. Whether that something is “elated and blissful”, or “upset and thoughtful”, or “appalled and revolutionary”, or even just “pleasantly diverted from the botherances of life for a few moments”, it ought to be doing something to you.

And sometimes, the people making the art have a clear idea about what feelings they want it to make you feel, and are trying really hard to make sure you feel those feelings.

Now, this isn’t an unreasonable goal at all. Art tends to be about the real world in one way or another, and things that happen in the real world often make you feel things really hard, so good art probably wants to have a similar impact. Our everyday experiences of the universe can be strongly emotional. They give rise to all sorts of colourful and evocative metaphors, about floating on air or hearts skipping beats or being swallowed up by the earth, as we try to communicate to each other the potency of what we’re feeling. We are emotional creatures, and the world is a place full of feels.

Some art tries to represent the parts of the world that are the most emotionally fraught and full of feelings. Some art tries deeply and effortfully with all of its might to make you feel things just as hard as the real world makes you feel things.

But some art just gets on with it and lets you figure out for yourself how you should feel about it.

I read a book a while ago called Looking for Alaska, the first novel from a guy the internet seems to quite like called John Green. I enjoyed it, it’s a pretty good book, and this isn’t at all about knocking John Green as a writer. That’d be especially petty and fruitless, given the blockbuster success he’s had, as well as the sorry state of the half-drafted scraps of semi-chapters littering my own computer.

John Green’s debut felt a touch adolescent in some of its tone – he was 28 when it was published, and I would’ve guessed it had come from someone a little younger – but it was a solid first book, from someone who might come up with some really good work once they’d matured a little more, and learned a little more, and grown into themselves a bit. That probably sounds harsher than intended; I honestly mean it all as qualified praise. It’s really not bad.

But boy does it seem to want you to feel how the people in the book are feeling, and to experience sympathetic emotions along with the protagonist.

And it’s not like it fails in that aim. I read it and felt at least some of the things the author wanted me to; it’s a moving story. It’s not like it’s a harsh and damning criticism of a writer to say that I suspect him of wanting the reader to empathise with his characters. But…

The word “histrionic” has been dancing round in my head for the last couple of paragraphs, trying to tempt my fingertips into typing it. I’m holding it back, because it wouldn’t be a fair comment. Except that the point of this article is to talk about Jessica’s Ghost, and comparing Jessica’s Ghost to Looking for Alaska can’t help but highlight certain stark contrasts, not least in the two books’ differing approaches to inducing emotion in the reader.

It’s not really appropriate to draw too much of a parallel between the two – they’re not that similar in many ways, and Jessica’s Ghost is certainly written for a younger audience – but there’s a reason the contrast occurred to me while reading it. A notable thing about Jessica’s Ghost in any context – about my dad’s books generally, in fact – is how cleanly pared-down the storytelling is, how economical with its verbiage. You don’t get many “long descriptions of trees and things“, as one fan pointed out – and you also don’t get long descriptions of the characters’ emotions and overwrought treatises on why these emotions are so fantastically profound and important. You get what you need to understand the setting and the people and the things the story’s about, and then it gets on with it.

It’s common for people discussing literature to conflate those “long descriptions of trees and things” with writing which effectively draws the reader into the written world. To assume that “good” writing, or “grown-up” writing, has to have things like lengthy and complex passages of scene-setting, if it’s going to be allowed to be about serious emotions and strongly felt feelings. To believe that, if a book’s going to be about death and loss and loneliness and serious things like that, it also has to be elaborate and full of flowery metaphors and packed with individual turns of phrase that you can point to and call deeply poignant.

And of course good writing absolutely can be like that. It’s by no means an unforgivably bad thing if you read something and consciously notice such things. You haven’t undermined the whole creative process if you can sometimes say “Ah, I bet this author wrote that bunch of words there to make me feel sad/happy/scared/relieved for the main character”. Trying to make you feel feelings is a thing that art does; so long as it’s not hitting you too violently over the head with it, it’s not wrong of it to want you to feel certain things and to try to use writerly tricks to get you there.

But another way to write good writing is to just get on with the story. To let people figure out for themselves how they feel about the things they’re reading about, and find their own empathy with the characters and their plight.

I’m worried some of this sounds like a backhanded series of compliments. Like I’m saying that Jessica’s Ghost is simple, or simplistic, or doesn’t have beautiful and deeply poignant writing in it, or that the sentences aren’t all elegantly put together in a way that makes it read like a dream, or like it’s failed in some way to be a proper grown-up book about serious things. If that’s the impression you’re getting, that’s only because I’m not a good writer myself.

I read this book in a weekend, I loved it, it stayed with me. It’s one of the best things I could think of for any young people to read, particularly if they’re still learning things about the feelings that life makes us all feel. The compassion and humanism behind it is consistently remarkable.

It’s released in hardback today, and available all over the place, and it’s World Book Day so if you don’t buy it then you basically hate literacy. Especially after you read a sample chapter (PDF), which is a much better way of deciding what you think of it than all my not-remotely-impartial wittering on. Go and read.

Brief personal addendum: I really might have a house to live in quite soon now. For really reals this time, not like all those other times when we thought it was all about to be great but then it was terrible instead. As ever, I’ll keep you posted.

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I’m a long way behind the curve with this one, but it’s possible some poor souls among you are languishing even further behind me. So, a recommendation.

Read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

It’s a Harry Potter fan fiction. That is, it’s a fictional story, written by someone who is not JK Rowling and has no connection to the franchise, but which uses the characters and scenarios described and depicted in the Harry Potter series of books and films.

If you’re somehow not aware of this particular older-than-the-internet online tradition, then boy are you in for a treat. Especially when you find the mpreg slash.

If, on the other hand, you’re all too aware of the grubbier corners of the internet where some fanfic writers ply their depravity, you’ll be able to think of any number of reasons why you shouldn’t click that link. You know the kinds of things people make fictional characters do to each other on the internet. Or, when it’s not smut, the things they do to grammar and the English language. Either way, it’s obscene.

Never mind all that. Read this story.

The premise – one of them – as best I can describe it so far, is that Harry Potter’s Aunt Whatsherface didn’t get married to the hideous caricature Uncle Thingy, and so those two didn’t keep young Harry in their cupboard under the stairs for the first eleven years of his life. Instead, she married a much more scientifically minded man, and Harry grew up learning to embrace empiricism and rationality, and reading every book he could get his hands on (which was a lot). What would happen, then, if the resulting arch-skeptic is the character who suddenly encounters all the impossibilities of the Wizarding World?

That might seem like an incredibly tedious paragraph to anyone not already invested in the Harry Potter world and keenly fascinated by the characters and the alternative possibilities that might face them under different circumstances. But the Rowlingverse is essentially used as a handy device for exploring genuinely interesting questions about our approach to knowledge.

Its author is Eliezer Yudkowsky, something of a hero of mine and a guy who knows a thing or two about rationality. And in amongst all the applied skepticism, he tells a seriously nifty character-driven story.

This is just a fanboy moment and a sincere recommendation. Go check it out if you haven’t read it already. If you have, feel free to share your thoughts below.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

This post, with its ambitious title, appeared in my RSS feed a few weeks ago. When I’d read about half-way through, I was almost sure I’d figured out where it was going, and how it would end, and was crossing my fingers that this guy wouldn’t let me down.

I totally called it.

In revisiting it just now, it still seems like a worthy winner, and I could only think of one possible contender to the crown. The choices really are sadly limited, when it comes to accessibly written self-help advice that actually works, based on proper evidence.

Pleasingly, that other book (David Allen’s Getting Things Done) is mentioned more than once by the commenters on that post. It is also quite brilliant.

I’m not going to tell you, so click through and find out what won this particular prestige. Some of you should be able to guess it from the lead-in.

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You know Glenn Beck? Turns out we’ve got one of those on this side of the ocean, too.

Earlier today, Tabloid Watch alerted me to a series of reviews (beginning here, and continuing here, here, and here) of a novel written by Richard Littlejohn.

Yes, it’s probably worth whatever reaction of dread you just gave it. If you’re not familiar with why his name should be making you want to vomit in someone else’s mouth, here’s a quick primer. Everything in that article is completely accurate. Except the parts they’ve toned down to go easy on him.

The book isn’t a new release, as I mistakenly thought at first, actually having been published in 2001. But the comparisons with Beck and his own novel are striking. The giddy paranoia, the delusional hysteria over some completely imagined nightmare, the non-existent evils supposed to be driving a country to its doom unless the day can be saved by the fanatically right-wing protagonist… Having just read that review on Cracked a couple of days ago, it all sounded eerily familiar.

I’m not going to retread the ground too much, because the Five Chinese Crackers blog really has done an excellent job of summing up everything wrong with To Hell In A Handcart – and it’s a long list. Perhaps most noticeable is how transparent a diatribe it is. There are countless extracts quoted in this breakdown which don’t belong to any well-rounded fictional character or engaging narrative prose; it’s just Littlejohn banging on about how awful it is having to live on the same planet as gays and foreigners, exactly like he does in his column, but with the words “said Mickey” following it every few sentences or so.

One character directly channels Littlejohn’s own prejudices as he laments that you only have to “raise the question” – the exact question isn’t specified, but it’s something about whether all immigrants aren’t thieving scum – to be “shouted down as some kind of racist”.

Do some background reading on Richard Littlejohn. Look at the way gypsies, Romanians, “spades” (apparently a slur on black people), and even “swarthy, olive-skinned” people are portrayed in the book he wrote. And you’ll see he’s right. It’s really incredible.

All you have to do is stereotype all members of a race as deplorable criminals, perpetuate bullshit about liberal lefties falling over themselves to serve up every privilege imaginable to those dirty foreigners on a platter, and try and dodge accusations of prejudice by pulling one of the most pathetic “some of my best friends are ethnic” routines I’ve ever seen… and somehow people will get the idea that you’re a horrible, horrible racist.

It’s clear, too, that whatever hardship and discrimination non-whites have had to face throughout the years is far less important than the indignity we Aryan folk have had to suffer by occasionally having racism pointed out to us. In one scene of the book, one of the lefty liberal strawmen in charge of anti-racism in the police force apparently has a room full of people repeatedly chanting “I AM A RACIST!” – because in Littlejohn’s mind, this is an insightful satire that cleverly undermines everything those liberal softies are trying to do. With all their “sensitivity” and “awareness” bullshit.

Apparently he genuinely sees no difference between learning to be watchful for any unconscious expressions of privilege that might occasionally leak out into your actions or words, and mindlessly shouting “I AM A RACIST I AM A RACIST”. Is Richard Littlejohn actually that stupid? I submit that yes, he is, and he also just doesn’t give a shit.

So if you couldn’t already think of enough reasons off the top of your head to really, thoroughly dislike Richard Littlejohn – and even if you could – the series of posts up at Five Chinese Crackers dissecting this dreadful, dreadful book are well worth a read. I’m not going to get started on the whole blogs vs. newspapers debate anytime soon, but if those posts don’t count as journalism but this bullshit does just because its distribution involved ink, then the word “journalism” has long since stopped being of any use in its current state.

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If you want to know what I think of the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, a book that’s just been released, which was put together by the lovely Ariane Sherine (organiser of the Atheist Bus Campaign) and which features essays from many of the grooviest godless guys and gals of our time, you can read my review on Amazon. What follows is something like what I might have written for the book, had I been asked to contribute able to fit it into my jam-packed schedule at the time.

Most atheists who are open about their non-belief – and have any interest in following the kind of discussions about it that some of us obsess over and base entire blogs and websites around – are used to having quite a variety of epithets and accusations hurled at us from those kind and generous people who follow the commands of a loving god. They tell us how we’re going to burn in hell throughout eternity, for instance, or that our stubborn disobedience must be borne of hatred and foolishness, or that we’re all amoral maniacs who have no reason not to embark on a constant rampage of hedonistic violence whenever it suits us.

It’s this last one I want to focus on here: the idea that any atheists who aren’t raping and murdering left, right and centre are somehow “doing it wrong”. The notion that we’re failing to understand the ethical implications of our worldview, and ought to be acting like despicable bastards if we had any sense.

I’m sure I don’t need to explain to anyone here that there do exist a number of good reasons not to revert to feral sociopathy whenever it suits us, beyond simply the threat of eternal punishment from some supposed authority. Even most religious people are moral and compassionate for reasons entirely unrelated to their fear of retribution or a desire to please some celestial overlord. But in a way, the lame accusation about the godless is… nearly right. Sort of. In some regards.

Atheists certainly aren’t without morals, but we are without sin. The very concept of sin is meaningless without a religious context. Unless you take it to mean nothing more than an immoral or unethical act, or a crime against some earthly authority, there’s simply nobody for atheists to sin against. We may have a moral system rooted in humanism, and there are often penalties for flouting human-instituted laws – but any commandments issued solely by God, we are totally free to ignore. If the deity of some religious sect wants things done in a particular way, or requires certain obeisances, rituals, or the like, and proclaims that it would be “sinful” to neglect these duties, we needn’t pay any attention.

We can act freely, with no code of restraint at all on the matter of sin and religious tradition. We can do whatever the hell we like.

This doesn’t mean we will, of course. In many cases, the blasphemy, heresy, satire, and other brands of irreligious disrespect to which we are entitled will overlap with our own moral codes of behaviour. I could offend every supreme being you care to mention as vilely as I can find words for (and tomorrow I may well do just that), but civility sometimes holds me back. I have friends who are Christians, and there’s no need for me to be a dick about it. But this is exactly my point: I can pick and choose my own behaviours on this matter, based on what suits me. When it comes to sin, and theological tenets, and religious traditions, I make up my own rules.

Religious traditions like Christmas.

I love Christmas. As I said in that review (which, as of this moment, 10 out of 10 people found helpful), it seems like an opportunity for everyone to just be happy and nice to each other for absolutely no reason. And I think this can only be a good thing.

Admittedly, it has its boring elements. There are several times throughout the day when many people feel obliged to go to church and remind God how great he is. Some of the more Jesus-centric music is pretty drab. And what’s the point of an advent calendar that just has some rubbish pictures behind the doors and no chocolate?

But the great thing about being an atheist, and thus being bound to no religious rules, is that I can disregard all that stuff I don’t like. And the even greater thing is that I can indulge in all the fun bits as much as I can feasibly make happen. Decorating a tree, exchanging presents, eating a gorgeous roast dinner, spending time with my increasingly half-heartedly religious family… count me in. Even listening to some seasonal carols, and maybe singing along with some songs about Jesus. Whether these are important parts of somebody else’s belief system needn’t concern me at all. Whether I’m having fun (within the limits of my regular, secular principles) is the only thing that I need to feel obliged to.

So, I’ll take a pass on the worship, but look forward to putting on a compilation CD with some choirs singing Silent Night. Yes please to the angel on the tree, the rousing harmonies of O Come All Ye Faithful, and Elf ; no thanks to the eggnog, chestnuts, nativity plays, and “remembering the true meaning” of anything. I’ll wish people a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holidays, and whatever other festive greeting they’d prefer. I’ll revel in Christmas spirit, and I’ll co-opt whatever sacred traditions I damn well please.

I can even use the obvious Tiny Tim reference as a sign-off, and not care about the faultiness of the premise:

God bless us, every one.

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It’s an especially lazy Friday here, so just a few brief things:

– Thanks again to all the contributors to yesterday’s Skeptics’ Circle, and to everyone who’s linked to it, commented, etc. I would take a snapshot of how much my visitor numbers have spiked, but, y’know, lazy. Kris Wager is now taking submissions for the next edition. With luck, he’ll be better versed than I in the art of brevity.

– I am reading The Greatest Show On Earth. It are awesome.

– I join the rest of the world in annoyance at Derren Brown‘s big “reveal” of his lottery prediction trick. He clearly doesn’t expect us to believe that a bunch of people working together psychically foretold it, but the story about rigging the draw with heavier balls was almost as silly. I’m now leaning toward the idea that it most likely happened something like this (thanks to BoingBoing for the link). [Edit: Yep, I think this pretty much nails it.]

And because it’s something that people seem to be doing today, consider this an open thread. Talk about whatever you like in the comments. Discuss any of the above, or something completely different. Tell me something interesting. Whatever. I’m off to have some yoghurt.

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Wait, I mean: Incompatible!

(It’s the best sort-of-pun I could think of at short notice. Shut up, I’m only starting writing this at 11:30pm.)

It’s only dated yesterday, but I’m pretty sure I remember seeing this article here, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, getting a fairly thorough response from PZ Myers a few days ago. Maybe it appeared somewhere else first. Anyway, I’m sure this has already been said much more eloquently than my fatigued self will manage now, but about 98% of all blogging would cease entirely if people didn’t ever say things that have already been said better by someone else. So.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum have become somewhat notorious in certain parts of the blogosphere, for their “accommodationist” stance. They’ve often attacked staunch, outspoken, aggressive atheists like PZ and Richard Dawkins, for attempting to promote atheism in a way that would actually be off-putting and needlessly alienating to the people they ought to be trying to connect with. And although I’ve seen other pieces that go much further on that theme than this one, it is sometimes hard to remember that they’re theoretically on our side.

They’re scientists, Mooney and Kirshenbaum, or at least science writers, and support the promotion and education of science, and are against religious encroachment onto these areas. But their ideas of how this should be done have provoked much ire from angrier bloggers than myself.

In this article, they pose the question:

Who in the United States will read Dawkins’s new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?

They’re talking about The Greatest Show On Earth, Dawkins’s latest book, due out in a scant few weeks now, which is to present the evidence supporting the scientific Theory of Evolution, explaining how the theory has developed and been reinforced over the years, and demonstrating just how much data exists confirming the truth of common descent and evolution through natural selection.

M&K have a problem with this.

Well, perhaps their problem isn’t so much with this book itself, but with Dawkins as an advocate for science. The implication is that “[a]n in-your-face atheist touting evolution” is unhelpful as a public proponent of science, and that his aggressive and hostile attitude toward religion is the reason for the answer to the above question being almost certainly “no”.

But I wonder quite how M&K would expect “America’s anti-evolutionists” to react to any mode of presentation of the evidence supporting this theory which they “doggedly refuse to accept”. Does some style of prose exist, by which such an epiphany could be induced in a fundamentalist to whose religious convictions evolution is an utter heresy?

It’s popular to suggest that any kind of proselytising is only of merit if flocks of people spontaneously convert on sight. There was similar inane criticism about the Atheist Bus Campaign in this country earlier in the year, when people asked whether anyone was likely to read the signs declaring “There’s probably no God – now stop worrying and enjoy your life”, and suddenly and immediately realise that they’re wasting their time believing a load of nonsense.

Well, no, obviously that’s never what was meant to happen. I also doubt many people have ever opened a drawer in a bedside table in a hotel while looking for some stationery to nick, picked up an unfamiliar tome called “The Bible” that some bloke called Gideon apparently left behind and forgot to pack, and found every word of it utterly and instantly convincing. The abrupt all-or-nothing approach isn’t what those are for either.

Some people actually are persuaded, often rather suddenly, when presented with a weight of evidence of which they’d been previously honestly unaware. I remember hearing Michael Shermer, now Editor in Chief of Skeptic magazine, talking about a class in evolutionary theory he took in his early years as a devout Christian. For the first time, he got to see what it was all about, without the facts being twisted and distorted into easily mockable straw men by the creationist filter, and it very quickly dawned at him that there was actually something to this.

But it usually doesn’t work like that. People’s opinions don’t tend to leap quantumly (if “quantum” hasn’t had its own adverb before now, then it should do) from one extreme to the other as a result of a single exposure to one individual argument (or collection thereof). And the success or value of a book like Dawkins’s shouldn’t be judged by how many irrational zealots find their minds being opened upon reading its contents. Instead, it adds to the overall conversation. It nudges the balance of total verbiage a little way in our favour. It reaffirms that the religious creationists and other promoters of anti-science (who don’t seem to worry about the “accommodating” tone of their own proselytising and who, let’s remember, are the ones who are wrong) don’t get to go unchallenged.

M&K’s criticism seems to be largely that this book won’t appeal to a very specific audience, which they’ve designated for it, and which they’ve defined as being people to whom this book is unsuited anyway. Which seems silly. Maybe the intended audience consists more of people like me, in which case I imagine it will do rather well, because I’m looking forward to it. My favourite Dawkins book so far has been The Ancestor’s Tale, in which – as with most of his stuff before The God Delusion – anti-evolutionism is briefly dismissed as being silly, and the point isn’t laboured beyond a page or so, letting him just get on with discussing the science.

I get the impression that The Greatest Show On Earth will be similar in this regard, but is likely to be criticised as attacking religion anyway. This is because sometimes reality clashes with people’s groundless, irrational beliefs, and so people object to being told things like “The Earth is around 4.6 billion years old”. Ideally, that would be all that needed to be said on the matter, but some people do take issue with this, so Dawkins will probably expand along the lines of “No, it really is, people have checked”. But if telling people that they’re wrong about these things is somehow unaccommodating or alienating, then it’s either the believers or reality itself that are at fault, not the scientists pointing this out.

People who think the universe is six thousand years old are wrong. We know this through numerous fascinating scientific means. It doesn’t obstruct anyone’s religious convictions to say this publicly. If your religious convictions are factually incorrect, that’s for you to reconcile in your own way. But science can’t be a part of any kind of “truce” that involves not pursuing and rebutting religious claims that assert a status of fact or scientific credibility.

I had planned to go through that article bit by bit, briefly responding to each segment in turn. Instead, I seem to have taken one quote from near the start, and just gone wherever my thoughts took me, for about 1200 words. It’s now past midnight, so I’m just going to post it up and save any pesky details like proof-reading, fact-checking, and clarity for tomorrow.

Here’s PZ’s take on this same article, which may be useful, depending on just how incoherent I became in my last few paragraphs.

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I think it was the 8 Lessons and Carols for Godless People show in December that finally persuaded me to read Ben Goldacre‘s book Bad Science. You should unequivocally read it yourself too, by the way, whoever and wherever you are. It will teach you many useful ways to watch out for complete bullshit in the media, and to evaluate the usefulness and validity of scientific studies for yourself. The only thing that bugged me just a little was that, after I’d bought my copy, I heard that the next edition (to be released in the new year) would include a new chapter, which he’d spoken about at the Godless People show, but which he couldn’t officially write until he’d finished being sued by the guy it was about. It ceased to bug me once I actually started reading the book, though, and I decided I might just pick up a copy of the new edition when it was available, and pass the old one on to someone who might appreciate it.

Well, the new edition of the book is here. And the new chapter is in it – but it’s also been reprinted, in its entirety, for free, on Ben’s blog. It’s released under a Creative Commons license, which means that distributing copies to everyone you know is wholeheartedly encouraged. It’s a brilliantly told and profoundly unsettling story about nutritionism in South Africa, and the effects that a few campaigners for “multi-vitamins” are having on the HIV epidemic there, and on the efforts made by health workers trying to get useful medication to millions of dying people. The Jenny McCarthy body count ain’t got nothin’ on these guys.

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