Archive for the ‘Islam Muslim Christianity atheist’ Category

Books I’ve read recently (updated 1-1-08)

Some of the descriptions are mine, and some are copied from reviews at Google Books.

“God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, 2007. Christopher Hitchens, described in the “London Observer” as “one of the most prolific, as well as brilliant, journalists of our time” takes on his biggest subject yet-the increasingly dangerous role of religion in the world. In the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian” “and Sam Harris’s recent bestseller, The End Of Faith, Christopher Hitchens makes the ultimate case against religion. With a close and erudite reading of the major religious texts, he documents the ways in which religion is a man-made wish, a cause of dangerous sexual repression, and a distortion of our origins in the cosmos. With eloquent clarity, Hitchens frames the argument for a more secular life based on science and reason, in which hell is replaced by the Hubble Telescope’s awesome view of the universe, and Moses and the burning bush give way to the beauty and symmetry of the double helix.

“The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks, 1970, 1998. Dr. Sacks, best known for the semi-fictional movie “Awakenings” with Robin Williams, is a collection of case histories of patients who have neurological disorders: patients who have lost their memories, who can’t recognize common objects, who suffer from delusions. Dr. Sacks makes us feel the humanity of these lost souls.

“The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic law Treats Non-Muslims” ed. by Robert Spencer, 2005. The historical, cultural, and religious elements of the violence and profound contempt for outsiders that characterizes much of the Islamic world today, written by a variety of scholars, Middle Easterners, and commentators. The wide-ranging group of essays explains how these attitudes are rooted in laws and cultural habits that are connected organically through the institution of dhimmitude. Many of these are written by Ibn Warraq and Bat Ye’Or, who is an Egyptian-born Jew.

“Quirkology: the Curious Science of Everyday Lives” by Richard Wiseman, 2007. From the cover: “Ever wondered how your surname has influenced your life? Or wished that you could tell if someone is lying? Or wanted to understand more about seduction?
Professor Richard Wiseman has spent twenty years exploring the backwaters of the human mind and going to places where mainstream scientists fear to tread. The result is Quirkology – a book that will change the way you look at life.” Dr Wiseman is a great wit.

“The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas” by Robert H. Frank, 2007. Having enjoyed Freakonomics earlier this year, Ithought this book might be similar. Dr. Frank presents a collection of ecnomic questions followed by explanations, collected by his student. Sample questions include “Why are round-trip airfares from Kansas City to Orlando cheaper than round-trip airfares from Orlando to Kansas City” and “Why is text-messaging more common in Asian countries than the U.S?” followed by an economist’s reasoning. A fun read, although not as quirky as Freakonomics.

“The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith” by Irshad Manji, 2003. Ms. Manji is a Muslim whose family immigrated to Canada in 1972, when Idi Amin expelled East Asians from Uganda. Her book is written as an open letter to her fellow Muslims. In summary, from the back cover, she writes: “Islam is on very thin ice with me…Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves. We’re in crisis and we’re dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it’s now. For the love of God, what are we doing about it?” Her vision is to retrieve “Ijtihad,” the lost tradition of independent thinking. Although I am not personally familiar with her, Ms. Manji is a known journalist in Canada, and has won prizes for her forthright opinions as well as death threats from some of her co-religionists.

“Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife” by Mary Roach, 2005. Reminiscent of her earlier work “Stiff, ” Ms. Roach investigates reincarnation, mediums and spiritualists, psychics, ghost hunting, near=death experiences, and other purveyors of the afterlife. A fun read.

“Misquoting Jesus: the Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” by Dr. Bart Ehrman, 2005. A noted Biblical scholar and textual critic, Dr Ehrman explains the method by which the Bible was copied by scribes, how scholars track which versions (among thousands that exist) are the oldest or most authentic, how disparant versions were reconciled at different times depending on what beliefs were the most prevalent (such as during the Nicene deliberations), and how copying errors are discovered. One of the chapters discusses the Greek translations that were later used by the group who prepared the King James version. When some refer to reading the Bible ‘in the original Greek’ they are usually referring to this particular translation which was prepared in the 11th century, using manuscripts that were later found to NOT be the oldest or most faithful to the oldest known copies. The King James, which is the most popular English-language translation, was based on Middle Ages manuscripts that were known, both now and in the 16th century, as being more error-ridden than other better documented copies. Dr. Ehrman is quite readable and makes history interesting.

“Runs with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs, 2002. An autobiographical tale of a young man – in the dictionary under ‘dysfunctional’ it has a picture of his family. When you read stories of young people who have managed to survive tragedy and neglect (“Angela’s Ashes” also comes to mind), it makes your own problems seem petty by comparison.

“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” by Daniel C. Dennett, 2006. Dr. Dennett is a professor of philosophy at Tufts University. As the jacket points out, this is “not an anti-religious screed, but rather an eye-opening exploration of the role that religious belief plays in our lives, our interactions, and our country.” Following Dawkins and others, he explores the foundations and historicity of morality and the continuing reasons for continued bleief in Bronze Age mythologies.

“A Devil’s Chaplain” by Richard Dawkins, 2003. The book is a collection of essays by Dawkins written over a period of years, and includes a eulogy to his close friend Douglas Adam (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). He covers Darwin, pseudoscience, genetics, and religion. In this collection, the reader can get a flavor of Dawkin’s style and wideranging interests and passions.

“Bad Astronomy” by Phil Plait, PhD. Phil, who also runs the website, writes a light-hearted by fact-filled book on common misconceptions about astronomy, including tides, stars, gravity, and the ‘moon landing hoax’ nuts. His book is aimed at the curious person who might not have a math or physics background but is interested in knowing a bit more about the heavens. I have given this book to several people, including a high school physics student.

“Lost Christianities” by Dr Bart Ehrman, 2003. Ehrman, who frequently appears on History Channel and the science stations. This book is a discussion of some of the different churches and beliefs of Christians during the first century. A main point of this history is that the present form of Christianity, that we tend to think of as the ‘right’ or orthodox viewpoint, is merely the one that won the debates. The winners get to write history, while the losers have their books destroyed, lost, or declared heretical. The religion could have just as easily turned out to be Peter’s Jewish form rather than Paul’s Gentile Christianity; Gnostic; Ebonite, or any of the other 40 or so verifiable church beliefs during the first two hundred years.

“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, 2006. Dr Dawkins, one of the most famous skeptics, biological evolutionists, and atheists in the world, follows up his television “The Root of All Evil” with this book, which discusses the harm and negative impacts that irrational belief in religion has caused. Note: this show has not been shown in the US, but can be found on YouTube.

“Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment?” by Tim Callahan, 1997. Mr. Callahan steps through the prophecies of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and examines the prophecies, as well has those events or situations that are claimed as fulfillment. He also devotes a few chapters talking specifically about endtimes prophecies, such as those promoted by Hal Lindsey, ‘new world order’ conspiracy theorists, and the development of fundamentalism in the late 19th century American Protestantism.

“Heaven on Earth – The Rise and Fall of Socialism” by Joshua Muravchik, 2002. Maravchik’s grandparents were members of the Socialist Revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia, which was one of the more radical and terror-oriented groups working in Russia prior to Lenin’s takeover. This book is a collection of brief biographies of the most important socialists, from the early Babeuf, Own, Engels, Marx, and Bernstein, Lenin, Mussolini’s fascist heretic, and the modern Deng, Gorbachev and others.

“Why Darwin Matters – the Case against Intelligent Design” Michael Shermer, 2006. I was fortunate to acquire this book the day before I left for a cruise with the James Randi Educational Forum (, which Dr Shermer attended as a guest speaker. So my copy is autographed! Dr Shermer lays out, with his usual clear language, the logical and scientific reasons why ID is not only just another label for creationism, but is also logically, historically, and scientifically bankrupt. I’ve loved his books since “Why People Believe Weird Things” came out, and found him to be friendly, personable, and highly intelligent. And a mean poker player.

‘The End of Faith – Religion, and the Future of Reason” Sam Harris, 2004. Harris explores the problems that fundamentalists faiths (focusing primarily on Islam) pose on civilization and the future of society, and how unreasoning ideology threatens the safety of mankind.

“When Jesus Became God – The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome”, Richard E Rubenstein, 1999″

“Lipstick Jihad – A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in American and American in Iran” Azadeh Moaveni, 2005

“The Sword of the Prophet – Islam history, theology, impact on the World” Serge Trifkovic, 2002. Historical, philosophical treatise, from a neutral observer, in that he is not an adherent of any religion.

“The Battle for God – A History of Fundamentalism” Karen Armstrong, 2001 (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) Excellent historical book, comparative theology on how fundamentalism arose in each at different times and how it affected both culture and the mainstream branches of these three religions. (I did not realize that Christian fundamentalism, the belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible, etc., only arose in the past 200 years, and in the US)

“A History of God” – Karen Armstrong (same three religions)

“Islam, A Short History” – Karen Armstrong, 2000. After the other books I’ve read this year on Islam (see this post), the book seems very apologetic.

“The Spiral Staircase” by Karen Armstrong, 2004. Her biography of leaving the convent and the Catholic church, her struggles at Oxford and with undiagnosed epilepsy.

“Secret Origins of the Bible” Tim Callahan, 2002. Besides the provocative title, it’s a scholarly history of the stories and legends that were consolidated into what’s called the ‘Old Testament’ sometime around 800 BC. I’ve read much of this history elsewhere in pieces, this is a good consolidation of the information, and is well-written and footnoted.

“King Leopold’s Ghost” Adam Hochschild, 1999 (Story of Victorian-era King Leopold Belgium, and his quest to create an empire in Africa (Belgium Congo), and the brutal plundering he did, affecting tens of thousands of the natives .

“A Peace to End of Peace – The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East” David Fromkin, 1989. See the date – prior to 9/11, but nothing really changes. They don’t teach this much in school – but the British and French created the current problems in the Middle East during their failed attempts to further their empires in the days prior to WWI.

“Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” Simon Sebag Montefiore, 2003. More personal accounts than “The Harvest of Sorrow” by Conquest.

“Lies My Teacher Told Me – Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” James W. Loewen, 1995, updated 2005. Some good information, but a little on the bash-America side.

“The Faith Healers” James Randi, 1989. His personal quest to expose some of the more prolific of the ‘faith healers’ -including Peter Popoff, who was the basis of the Steve Martin film “Leap of Faith.”

Flim-Flam! – Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and other Delusions” James Randi, 1982.

“The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” Carl Sagan, 1996. Wonderful book to give people who are deluded by pseudoscience but aren’t irreversibly stupid.

“The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black , the Most Devastating Plague of All Time.” John Kelly. 2005 The title says it all. This is the fourth or fifth book I’ve read on the plague in the past two years.

“Black Rednecks and White Liberals” Dr Thomas Sowell, 2005. A book of six essays on topics such as the misperception that ghetto culture is an authentic ‘black identity’ rather than a carryover of impoverished white culture from pre-Civil War days; misteaching of history for political agendas; a world-wide history of slavery; and achievements of immigrants groups.

“American Gods” Neil Gaiman, 2001. Novel, winner of Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Bram Stoker Awards. After reading it, I’m going to go out and buy the rest of his books.

Anansi Boys” Neil Gaiman 2005. A semi-sequel to American Gods. His British roots are showing…

“Stardust” Neil Gaiman, 1999. Totally fiction. I bought it right after American Gods. This guy’s a great writer. I hope he lives a long time.

Freakanomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything” by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, 2004. From the back – “Freakonomics is politically incorrect in the best, most essential way.” Witty and well-written. Many topics are “if drug dealing is so profitable, why do most dealers still live with their moms?” “What your parents tell the world about you and YOUR BACKGROUND AND CULTURE with the name they pick for you.” The 20 most common names picked out by low-income and by high-income families don’t overlap! (And that’s constant within a race…). Why did crime rates plummet and the ‘super-predator’ disappear about 20 years after Roe V Wade????

“The Great Influenza” by John M Barry. In the winter of 1918, at the height of WWI, history’s most lethal flu virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years, more people in one year than Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision between modern science and epidemic disease.

“On Food and Cooking, the Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Herbert McGee, second edition, 2004. I wore out my 1986 paperback edition….

“Why I am Not a Muslim” by Ibn Warraq (pseudonym). A self-described Pakistani ‘religious zealot’ and jihad-oriented Muslim became disillusioned with the West, the free-speech advocates, the media, and nearly everyone else did not condemn the fatwa against Rushdie (author of “The Satanic Verses”) but instead apologized for the Islam fanatics and said Rushdie ‘shouldn’t have written the book’ which was a fictional novel. Warraq gives a detailed, footnoted and referenced history of Mohammad, the Arab world of his time, the development of the Koran, the Islamic borrowings from Judaism, early Christianity, Zoroastrian, Persian culture, and others. He also covers how the Islamic legal system developed and codified/fossilized during the Middle Ages, and how it affects Arab and non-Arab culture and civilization today.

“Camouflage” by Joe Haldeman, 2004. The master of science fiction…

“The Meaning of Everything” by Simon Winchester, 2004. A very readable book on the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, how it came to be, and the main characters in the development of the book, including the Civil War surgeon W. C. Minor, who was a prisoner in England’s Bedlam Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

“Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer, 2004. Subtitled “A Story of Violent Faith” Interesting enough, when I researched this book on Amazon, there were several posts that were very hostile to the book and its message. More interesting, all of the negative posts were from LDS (Mormon) adherents who had not read the book, but were extremely angry that it had been written at all, and were of the sort “This is the One True Religion, believe in the Loving God or die” variety. The book is about a double murder that occurred against a young woman and her infant daughter, by members of a ‘fundamentalist’ Mormon sect who were practicing the polygamy as laid down by Smith, Young, and other Mormon leaders up until various U.S. Presidents forced monogamy on them. It is interspersed with biographical and historical information on the early cult movement, its leaders, politics, and violent philosophies. It is timely that I read it just as one of the leaders of this movement, Warren Jeffs, was arrested. Krakauer also wrote “Into Thin Air”

“Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up in Polygamy” Dorothy Allred Soloman, 2003. I saw this on the discount table at the half price book store, and after reading the “Banner” book, thought I would try this. One woman’s story of growing up as the child of a man with 7 wives. She has mixed feelings about her life – loving her father, but being forced to live as outlaws, seeing her various aunts contend with jealously, pain, poverty, so that the men in this particular fundamentalist Mormon cult could fulfill their own fantasies of being a member of the ‘priesthood’.