Book Review: Imagine There’s No Heaven by Mitchell Stephens

Everyone knows curiosity killed the proverbial cat. Yet it likely also is responsible for the death of God, at least in many people. Although that death may not have been premeditated, it is the result of a natural human tendency to seek explanations. Moreover, Mitchell Stephens suggests, were it not for atheist thought, Western civilization may never have seen the scientific revolution or the “Age of Reason.”

Stephens makes a strong case for his view in Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World, an exploration of the impact of atheist thought on Western civilization. Put simply, he shows that these ideas were engaged in a “virtuous cycle” with growing exploration and understanding of the natural world.

imagineAlthough Imagine There’s No Heaven examines several mainsprings of disbelief and their development, it seems clear the linchpin is our innate desire to understand the world around us. The same could even be said for religion. Even earliest man wanted explanations for why certain things happened or what caused them. Given the methods available, a god was as valid an explanation as anything. But knowledge is a formidable thing. We notice that seasons seem to be associated with movement of the Sun and the stars. We then ask why they are moving. As Galileo and others discovered, the correct answer may threaten religious beliefs. But a correct answer leads, in turn, to more questions, including efforts to validate or invalidate prior answers. As Stephens observes, “Questioning — doubt — is where atheism begins.”

Stephens looks at how, although perhaps slow to develop, this cycle led to what we now call “the scientific method.” Equally important, once Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica launched the scientific revolution, the cycle was even more active. As Neil deGrasse Tyson suggested in the opening episode of the reboot of Cosmos, two words may best describe the scientific method: “question everything.” That approach would necessarily encompass or involve gods and religious beliefs. “Religion explains. Science explains,” writes Stephens. “After Newton it became hard to deny that — on many subjects at least — science explains better.”

Yet Imagine There’s No Heaven also points out atheism’s impact beyond natural science. It explores how the writings of various atheists or similarly inclined individuals influenced political thought, especially prior to and after the French Revolution. These ideas were in part founded on tolerance and included justice, freedom, equal rights and other democratic ideals. This in turn reinforces the virtuous cycle because, as Stephens notes, tolerance requires taking a step back from our own beliefs. He is not blind, though, to the adverse effects some ideas had, pointing out the role some atheistic concepts played in the French Revolutions “Reign of Terror.”

In that respect, while Stephens is an advocate, he does not appear to be overly biased. There may be a few times he could be accused of overreaching and cherry picking, but Imagine There’s No Heaven is a thoughtful examination. Perhaps more important to the reader, the book explores its topic from pre-Grecian times to the 21st Century through the stories and ideas of specific individuals, some famous and some unknown to most. As such, it makes what could be a dry topic much more readable and easier to comprehend.

Ultimately, some may wonder why it takes a book to point out atheism’s impact on Western civilization if it, in fact, was as influential as Stephens claims. Wouldn’t it be part of our history classes or generally recognized? After all, we’re certainly aware of religion’s role in history. Here, Stephens makes a telling point.

Even if we ignore the destruction of “blasphemous” material throughout history, hand copying was necessary to reproduce texts before the printing press. Where was most of that copying done? In monasteries. Thus, early books, plays and other writings considered even slightly irreligious weren’t at the top of the reproduction list, making them few and far between by the time Gutenberg’s invention allowed mass distribution. For several centuries after that, the church dominated European society and life. As a result, comparatively speaking, atheism’s role in ideas and culture may appear to be only a recent development. Imagine There’s No Heaven is a strong step in correcting that record.

…tolerance is always easier to support when you need to be tolerated than when you are being asked to tolerate.

Mitchell Stephens, Imagine There’s No Heaven

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Weekend Edition: 4-12

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • I’m With The Banned (“My three kids have my blessing to read anything they want, and I absolutely encourage them to read banned books. Why? Because I respect them and think they’re smart, and because I want them to draw their own conclusions … I want my kids to be critical thinkers.”)
  • Why I Hate Shakespeare (“I’ve come to terms with my unpopular opinion. I no longer fear the judgment of others, and I unapologetically proclaim that, to me, Shakespeare is highly overrated.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

(Deplorable) Legal Theory of the Week

Bookish Links

Nonbookish Links

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.

Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

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Book Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

By now, the printed word must feel like a mashup of Tom Sawyer and the movie Groundhog Day. For probably a couple decades now, it has attended its own funeral over and over and over and over, ad nauseum. But if we assume one of those countless pronouncements of death is correct, what about words and language generally? In Alena Graedon’s first novel, The Word Exchange, they’re endangered by technology and evil corporations.

word exchangeGraedon tells the story through two of a handful of main characters. At its center is Anana Johnson, who works with her father, Doug, the editor of the forthcoming new edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL).  The other narrator is “Bart,” the dictionary’s deputy editor and Doug’s protege, whose handwritten journal entries relate his view of events.  (Bart’s actual name is Horace Tate but he is referred to almost exclusively as Bart, short for the name “Bartleby” Graedon has Doug bestow upon him from Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” ) Doug mysteriously disappears just days before the launch of the NADEL edition he’s been working on for years and Anana’s search for him, aided by Doug, is the vehicle for the story.

The core of The Word Exchange is the impact of technology, specifically something called the Meme. Sounding like an extremely powerful smartphone, the Meme uses adaptive wear to communicate with the brain through electrical signals.  It can instantly provide any information needed to communicate with others, study, buy things, get a cab, prove identity, and remember details about life, friends and family. In other words, it is the source for the information needed for and interactions of daily life.  The Meme can even predict or suggest courses of action, purchases and ideas. This has led an untold number of users to undergo off-label implantation of  microchips to enhance the Meme’s “neuronal efficiency.”

Like almost any virtually ubiquitous product, there are a variety of applications for the Meme creates a market for other companies, including the online Word Exchange. It provides Meme users immediate access to the definitions, synonyms and antonyms of words and, with the device’s predictive abilities, will supply words used in reading or conversing with others — for two cents a word.  Synchronic, the maker of the Meme and owner of the Word Exchange, has been so successful in buying publishers’ copyrights to printed dictionaries, thesauri and similar word reference works that the only printed dictionary that will remain is the new NADEL.

Some, including a mysterious underground group called The International Diachronic Society, believe the Meme reroutes pathways in the brain. They point out that, rather than being able to remember words, people now rely on the Word Exchange. They fear not only the consequences of the average American being unable to read most anything without resorting to the Word Exchange but also the company’s effective ownership of words. There are also rumors of occasional incidents of “word flu,” a condition of unknown origin that reduces the afflicted to speaking largely in gibberish.

Amidst all this, Synchronic — which also happens to be the name of a method of language study that directly contrasts with the diachronic method — is preparing to release a new device, the Nautilus, which will connect with the brain more directly. Another company is working to deploy a new game in which Meme users create new words and vote on them for future incorporation in the Word Exchange.  Synchronic recently bought the company, which was founded by Max King, who just happens to be not only Bart’s former college roommate but the longtime boyfriend who recently dumped Alana.

The Word Exchange‘s characters are lenses to examine both the societal impact of technology and the meaning of language and words. Bart is essentially a word nerd fascinated with Hegelian philosophy. Doug’s more traditional, almost anachronistic, love of the printed word represents one end of the spectrum while Max wants to be an integral part of the future. Anana and Bart, meanwhile, are akin to average Meme users but sufficiently conversant with the world of words to see both sides of the clash between past and future.

Because many of the characters are philologists, there is a tendency toward five-dollar words, particularly in Bart’s journals. In addition, extensive core information is presented by way of summary in an op-ed written by the Diachronic Society and a letter to Anana from Doug. Whether either is reasonable or a distraction will depend on the individual reader.

Graedon also uses more traditional tropes. One is Bart’s unrequited love for Alana and the reader knowing long before either of them that she has fallen in love with him. Likewise, as tends to happen in a struggle for primacy, there are the occasional very narrow escapes from danger and death. In fact, some seem akin to a character ignoring specific warnings (or the horror movie character who insists on opening the door everyone but them seems to know they shouldn’t) or even acting contrary to the picture Graedon has painted of them.

Mining dystopia, evil corporations, conspiracies and secret societies, the concept and framework of The Word Exchange are creditable.  Unfortunately, it is undermined in the execution.

The skills we once used for survival — scattered attention, diffuse concentration — have been adapted to finding glowing dots on screens, skimming pop-ups, beams, emails, video streams.

Alena Graedon, The Word Exchange

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Weekend Edition: 4-5

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • What Is Cupcake Fascism? (“[A] stiff upper lip is, dialectically speaking, nothing more than a form of cowardice; less a level-headed stoicism than a neurotic unwillingness to confront an unjust reality.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

Headslapper of the Week

  • A nine-month-old Pakistani boy is charged with attempted murder of police officers

I Take It He Didn’t Like His Job

  • A Manhattan court reporter has caused chaos by repeatedly typing things like “I hate my job I hate my job. I hate my job.” instead of trial testimony

Bookish Linkage

[R]eality … is always necessarily disillusioning.

Christa Wolf, City of Angels

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Weekend Edition: 3-28

Bulletin Board

  • It’s my annual “hockey weekend.” The NCAA Division I men’s hockey tournament began yesterday. I watched three games and live cut-ins to a fourth yesterday (and went to a Stampede game last night). There’s six more games on TV today (making me thankful for DVRs) and two tomorrow. Not that I’m obsessed or anything.

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • You’re Not As Busy As You Say You Are (“The answer to feeling oppressively busy … is to stop telling yourself that you’re oppressively busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are.”)
  • The Case for Working Less (“…mythologizing about work fails to confront – indeed it actively conceals – the acute hardships of much work performed in modern society. For many, work is about doing ‘what you hate’”.)
  • Noah Isn’t Accurate Because It Can’t Be (“Most movies implying they were based on true events…have true events to base a script on. Noah does not for a number of reasons.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

  • How medieval parents dealt with their teenagers
  • In a recent study in Italy, people hearing the sound of a hammer striking marble each time it tapped their hands felt like their limbs were made of stone

What happens on the ice is notably free from religious exhibitionism: players don’t kneel in prayer at center ice after a game or cross themselves before a breakaway. The game is the spirituality.

Chris Koentges, “The Oracle of Ice Hockey

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Illogicality #1

Maybe age is making me increasingly curmudgeonly but I seem to see and hear more things taken at face value that leave me absolutely dumbfounded. The one I read today was so ironic and illogical that it prompts a new series called Illogicality. It will appear when items strike me as asinine enough to be worth dismantling. Appropriately, the inaugural edition is about as incongruous as you can get.

Uproar from various camps surrounds Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Noah, opening in the U.S. this Friday. Glenn Beck was criticizing the movie before seeing it so the studio gave him an advanced screening over the weekend. Beck continued the bashing unabated on his radio show Monday. Now he calls it “pro-animal and anti-human, and I mean strongly anti-human.” Well, let’s look at the source to figure out if he’s right.

According to the account in the New International Version of the Bible, “So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people.’” Genesis 6:13 (emphasis added). But he also instructed Noah “to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.” Genesis 6:19 (emphasis added). Sounds about as pro-animal and anti-human to me as you can get.

You’d think Beck might know the story of Noah comes off that way because of the original author.

To bankrupt a fool, give him information.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

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