26 September 2023

Coming to faith through Dawkins

Coming to Faith Through Dawkins: 12 Essays on the Pathway from New Atheism to Christianity

Coming to Faith Through Dawkins: 12 Essays on the Pathway from New Atheism to Christianity by Denis Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this was a very good book and well worth reading.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the book launch where Denis Alexander, one of the editors, introduced it by interviewing three of the authors, and the following morning I heard him speak on genetic determinism, which happens to be his academic field. Dr Alexander, and the authors, made the book sound interesting, and so it was.

What bothers me a bit about writing a review, no matter how much I enjoyed the book, is that it is in effect a collection of twelve reviews of a book that I haven't read, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Note: Though this piece is based on a review I wrote on GoodReads, it goes beyond the review in being more wide-ranging, and also more personal

The God Delusion is a polemic against religion in general and Christianity in particular, and in this book all twelve authors describe how reading it had the opposite of the intended effect on them.

Obviously not all readers will find Dawkins's book counterproductive, and indeed for some of these authors it initially wasn't; but in all of them it ultimately produced the opposite effect to what the author intended. Many of these authors were looking for something to confirm or reinforce their atheism, but instead The God Delusion had the opposite effect and made them doubt it.

Several of the authors had also read, and been similarly influenced by others of the so-called New Atheists, notably Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I haven't read any of their books either. The nearest I got was picking up The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris in a book shop one day, and glancing through it. I was curious to read what he had to say on the topic, but I didn't want to spend any money on it, so thought I'd wait till I could find someone who had a copy of the book and was willing to lend it to me. From my skimming through it I couldn't see anything new about the "new" atheism though; it all looked very much like the "old" atheism I'd learned about as a first-year university student through the arguments and the tracts handed out by members of the university Rationalist Society led by the redoubtable Dr Eddie Roux. These arguments and tracts were more rational, more logical, and more coherent than a lot of the stuff put out by the "New Atheists" and their followers seems to be.

Some of the contributors to Coming to Faith through Dawkins are working in the same or related academic fields as Richard Dawkins, and admire his work as an evolutionary biologist, and say how disappointed they were when they read The God Delusion, which fell far below the standard of his scientific works. Celebrity in one discipline does not necessarily make one an expert in another, unrelated, field. For more on that, see here.

Though I haven't read any of the works of the "New Atheists", I have encountered some of their disciples and fans online. I usually try to avoid being drawn into arguments with them, as most of them tend to be more dogmatic than their heroes, and their logic tends to be even more simplistic, so that the arguments go round in circles. They love to recite the creed of valid and invalid arguments, often just before asking question-begging questions or setting up a straw man, so one thing I learned from this book was that even the models they base themselves on do that.

One of the best examples of that came from a colleague at work who was an agnostic, and tried to join an online group for discussing atheism, agnosticism and so on. But he was blackballed because he had a heretical view of the nature of God. It turned out that in order to join the group one had to not believe in the god that Sam Harris didn't believe in, having exactly the same nature and characteristics. No other god would do. 

One reason I haven't read any of the works of the New Atheists is that I'm not much interested in the question of the "existence" of God. I have never been convinced by any of the arguments for the existence of God, and I suspect that most Christians are unaware of them, much less convinced by them. Some parts of Coming to Faith through Dawkins mentioned the Cosmological Argument and a couple of others. I'd have to look them up to find what they are, so I just skimmed through those parts of the book. 

That is also another of the reasons I try not to get involved in arguments with soap-box atheists online or in person. The arguments wouldn't convince me, so why would they convince them? The only times I do comment are when the atheist asks a question-begging question, or demonstrates some other logical flaws.

One such question, however, I did relay to Dr Denis Alexander when he spoke on genetic determinism, because it seemed to be right in his field. Someone who bills himself as a talented sceptic asked on Twitter (alias X) "What is the biological cause of the fear of death?"

I took his question at face value, and answered: "Natural Selection. Those who do not fear death do not survive long enough to reproduce."

He didn't comment, but I suspect that that was not the kind of answer he was looking for. There may have been a hidden sub-text; there usually is a hidden sub-text to such questions.

And most questions asked by soap-box atheists seem to start in the wrong place and with questionable assumptions, like "What evidence do you have for the existence of God?" (I learned from Coming to Faith Through Dawkins that the demand for "evidence" is a prominent characteristic of the New Atheists).

Any response is likely to be met with "The onus is on you to provide evidence." But who determined the onus? The onus-putters. The question belongs to Humpty Dumpty; it's really "Who is to be master? That's all."

The authors of Coming to Faith through Dawkins come from many different Christian traditions, and many different academic fields. They come from five different countries (three of them are South Africans -- the ones who were at the book launch). Some of the contributions appealed to me more than others, but because of the variety anyone who has any interest in questions of science and faith, or related questions, should find this book interesting.

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23 September 2023

Institutional Memory: Remembering the Good and the Bad

Yesterday morning we participated in TGIF[1] via Zoom, where Nick Koning spoke on "The good and bad of institutional memory." He said he had gone to Selborne College, a high school in East London, and would be taking that as an example, as the whole place was full of reminders of the past. 

The perimeter fence was marked with the names of old boys. There was a Jubilee Tower, a new structure, but it was meant to look old, and to be a reminder of the past. The school hall was full of sporting pictures of the past. He had walked into all this as a 14-year-old boy, and was filled with the sense of past achievements, which helped to give him the ambition to achieve similar things.

Every new pupil at the school had to pass a test on all this historical tradition before they could wear the school uniform, and that was a mild form of initiation. Among the names was one who had been awarded the Victoria Cross because he had killed a lot of Nazis. Another was Mark Boucher, a former pupil who was celebrated as the best wicket-keeper in the world, and had learned to pay cricket at Selborne College. Nick himself played hockey, and was inspired by this to be the best.

The way the past is remembered is the superpower of such institutions, inspiring people to raise their horizons.

There was the annual Founders Day ceremony, full of pomp, highly traditional and very colonial. The head boy was called the Custodian of the Keys, a practice that dated back to when the war memorial, called Bob, was erected after the First World War, and the Administrator of the Cape handed over the keys to it to the head boy. So on Founders Day two lists of names were read out -- that of past Custodians of the Keys, and that of those who had died in the First and Second World Wars. This reinforces the idea propagated by the school motto -- that reward is to the brave, who save the world from bad people.

But there were no people of colour on the lists that were read out, because back then it was an all-white school, and it was only in 2002 that there was, for the first time, a black Custodian of the Keys.  We all know the reason for this, it is a familiar thing, but still an ugly one, and we need to remember the ugly facts of our past too.

What is forgotten is as interesting as what is remembered. White exclusivity is not remembered. The horror of SA society, and the shock of it is forgotten. The glorious past is not as glorious as has been remembered. There were good things to remember, but the way we remember it is better than  it actually was.

There were also some bad things, some bad traditions. Among the lists of names were detention lists, which were mostly of black children, and so a problem. Why were black children more often in detention than white children?

In 2017 one of the pupils drew a caricature of Hector Pieterson, where the people in the famous picture of him being carried after he was shot were portrayed as dogs. There was the continuing use of racial slurs by teachers, but little is said about these things in the institutional past, though they could be used as an educational opportunity.

Though Selborne College was only one school, there are many others that preserve institutional memories and traditions in various ways, yet I thought how different it was from my own school life. 

When I went to St Stithians College in 1953 it was a brand new school. There was no past, no tradition. There were no new boys to initiate, because we were all new together. The headmaster, Wally Mears, said there were no rules, and that we, by our own behaviour would make the rules. The first founders day, on 11 August 1953, was marked by the laying of the foundation stone of the school chapel, and yes, it was an all-white affair. But the only names remembered were those of businessmen who had left money in their wills for the school to be started, or those other businessmen and lawyers who had administered the trust fund. There were no past pupils, only present ones.

In more recent years I have attended the Founders Day services, usually at five-year intervals, so this year was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the school. But it struck me that the remembered past is not much like the real past, and there is not much interest in the real past. I had suggested that they should try to arrange a reunion gathering of the foundation pupils who were there in 1953, and they suggested one for those who had been in my matric class in 1958, which was not at all the same thing.

In 2008 I had gone to a head boy's lunch, where some of the current pupils met some of the past pupils and teachers. I ppoke to Tshegofatso Rangaka, then head of Collins House, who was keen to know about traditions, but I had had to tell him that I couldn't think of any, because the school had been so new. I got the impression that there was a kind of hunt to discover traditions, and perhaps he was under some pressure to pump the past pupils for traditions. 

By that time St Stithians was 55 years old, and there were lists of names on boards up in the dining hall, and the one who had been head boy in my matric year, Bruce Young, was the first on the list, but his name was spelt wrongly, as B. Going, and no one had noticed or bothered to check. The remembered past was not the real past, and an imagined past would do just as well as the real past, as long as it was a tradition.

There are mixed memories of the past, some good, some bad. I don't recall the teachers ever being racist -- they gave us "a liberal education with a Christian teaching" in accordance with the wishes of the businessmen who had left money for the school to be established. 

We ate in the school dining room, wearing school uniforms with blazers even in midsummer. On one particularly hot evening, when the headmaster's wife, Nan Mears, was sitting alone at the high table supervising us, someone dared me to go up and ask if we could take off our blazers. 

"Certainly not!" she replied. 

We were all white, and had to learn to behave like gentlemen. There were black waiters, who brought our food and cleared the tables afterwards. One day one of the waiters appeared with his head shaved, and we all remarked on his new hair style. Only many years later did I learn, to my shame, that in his culture it was a sign of mourning, and that someone in his family must have died recently, but instead of expressing sympathy, we kids insensitively teased him about his hair style. Such things could have become educational opportunities, as Nick Koning suggests.

The best example of forgetting the bad is illustrated in the way St Stithians treated its second headmaster, Steyn Krige. He was my geography teacher from 1954 to 1958, and was only deputy headmaster when I was there, and he died in 2011 -- my memorial for him is here. The school named a hall after him, and published an obituary for him, and noted that when he left St Stithians he went on to found Woodmead School, the first fully non-racial school in South Africa. What they did not mention, and what seems to have dropped out of the institutional memory, is why he left St Stithians. He was fired in an acrimonious row that made the front pages of the Sunday newspapers back in 1969. What was never made public was the reason for his firing, and that has been conveniently swept under the carpet.

I think it is important to remember the past. Shakespeare said "The evil that men do live after them, the good is oft interred with their bones" (yes, I learned that at St Stithians). While that is often true of individuals (think of what people recalled on the recent death of Gatsha Buthelezi), in institutions the reverse tends to be true -- the good things are remembered, especially by the people who enjoyed them, the bad things tend to be forgotten. Partly for that reason I at one time wrote a series of blog posts, Tales from Dystopia, to remember some things that might otherwise be forgotten. Unfortunately I had to give it up, because the Wordpress platform became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible to use. But have a look, and maybe it will jog your memory about the past. 



[1] TGIF, in this context is a gathering that takes place in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Stellenbosch early on Friday mornings, so people can come and get some mental stimulation before they go to work. There are speakers on various topics.

13 September 2023

Missing persons: fact and fiction

Missing PersonsMissing Persons by Nicci Gerrard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johnny Hopkins goes off to university and disappears. His family and friends embark on a frantic search for him.

The book concentrates on the effects of Johnny's disappearance on his friends and especially on his family, which is rather unusual in such books.

Many novels feature missing persons as part of their plot, but most concentrate on the search for them, or on the missing persons themselves. The reaction of their friends and family usually form part of the story and are not the central element of the plot.

There have also been quite a lot of TV series on missing persons, where the reactions of friends and families of the missing have been central, but these have usually been documentary, or re-enacted documentary rather than fiction. I don't know whether it's the influence of such TV series, but I think I prefer such themes not to be fictional, but rather to be based on real people and real events. You can make up a story about why someone would want to disappear, or why some villains would want to make someone disappear (Shatter by Michael Robotham is a good example of that genre), but making up a story about how people react somehow doesn't strike me as being as interesting as the real thing.

I realise that this is a personal preference, perhaps also driven by my interest in family history, which is a search for missing persons over several generations. So this is not about this particular book, which I thought was interesting and well written; it's rather about my own personal preferences.

One example is Re: Beaglehole, a court case that established the South African law of missing persons. Absalom Beaglehole went missing in England, but his brother died in South Africa, and their sisters in England wanted the missing Absalom declared dead so that they could claim his share of their brother's inheritance (in this instance, real life diverges quite widely from the fictional story). If you're interested, you can read about what happened in the Beaglehole case here: Deceased Estates, Probate Records and Missing Persons

But, my personal preferences aside, the characters in Missing Persons are believable, and its worth a read.

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06 September 2023

Good Advice for Fiction Writers

More on How to Write a MillionMore on How to Write a Million by William Noble
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I got a job as an editor of academic texts I began looking at books in the university library with advice to writers and editors. I could recognise bad writing when I saw it (even as a student, having to read obfuscatory prescribed texts), but as an editor my job as to improve it, and turn a bad text into a good one.

As a result, I read quite a lot of books on writing, both fiction and nonfiction, and when I saw this one going cheap on a book sale, I bought it. I would not have bought it at the full price, because the title put me off. I thought someone really needed to edit that (a million what?). But on sale it was cheap enough that there was nothing to lose, and I'm glad I did, because it really is one of the better books on the subject.

It is actually 3 books in one, by three authors I had never heard of. The three books in one binding have separate page numbers, indexes and tables of contents. They are on Description, Revision and Setting. As an editor, I read the Revision one first, and also used it when revising my first novel, Of Wheels and Witches, and have just reread it for working on a second edition.

They give sensible advice. For example, nearly all books on writing give the advice (or sometimes a command) to "Show, Don't Tell", and this one covers it from three points of view -- in description, revision and setting. But here it is not overly prescriptive about it. It is more helpful than that, and gives advice on when to show and when to tell, and also how to do both showing and telling, when each is most appropriate.

I recommend it for both beginning and experienced fiction authors, but nonfiction authors and editors could also benefit.

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03 September 2023

Utopia as Dystopia: R.A. Lafferty's "Past Master"

Past MasterPast Master by R.A. Lafferty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A bit like Brave New World and 1984 on steroids.

Astrobe is the new Earth, and a paradise where poverty is unknown, and wealth and comfort are freely available to all. The paradise is marred, however, when increasing numbers of people, like the savage in Brave New World, reject this, and opt for a life of voluntary poverty, deprivation and disease.

A group of leading citizens decide to bring Sir Thomas More, the English lawyer and martyr who wrote the original Utopia from the past, as the eponymous "Past Master" to help them to solve this problem. More arrives, and discovers that the paradise is not all that it seems. Those who doubt the vision become the target of programmed killing beasts and are eliminated from the society, rather as More was eliminated from his own English society back in 1535.

The Astrobian Utopia has a far better surveillance system than 1984 and can detect treasonous thoughts before even the thinker is aware of them. This seems to be significant for the role of so-called "AI" in our current society, and it is worth reading for that reason. R.A. Lafferty raises the kind of questions we should be asking about "AI".

There are more interesting parallels with out society. In South Africa there is a widening gap between rich and poor, though in Astrobe it is large still yet entirely voluntary. Thomas More, after first encountering the contrast, remarks:
I was never an advocate of wealth and fineness. I believe fully in holy poverty. But I say that poverty is like drink: a little of it is stimulating and creative; too much of it is depraved and horrifying.
And More has a better name for what we misleadingly call "AI" -- eloquence machines.
At this one thing for which Astrobe has a hunger now, high oratory, we were the professionals and you are the amateurs. I know that you have analyzed the thing and broken the personal aura down into its elements. It is like chopping up a bird, but can you make a bird? Perhaps you can, since you made the Programmed Persons, but we recognize them as artificial. I know you have built intricate eloquence machines, man, but they ring false. The laughter of the people at them like autumn leaves blowing is evidence of this. I've heard the eloquence machines, and I've heard the people's response. I've heard human and programmed orators who have studied under the eloquence machines. I've heard a lot of things in one week on Astrobe. People are hungry for the real thing...
And then there was the tantalising hint of more: "Evita had been battling principalities and powers for a long time, and it showed on her. And yet she didn't appear more than seventeen."


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