Monday, July 30, 2007

Religion as an extended phenotypes

A few posts ago I explained why I didn’t find two popular evolutionary explanations for religion very convincing. I attacked the idea that religion was a harmful by-product of something useful and the idea that it was a meme that was good at spreading itself despite being harmful to its host.

Ironically, it was Richard Dawkins who also produced the most popular exposition of what I think is the best way to study man’s religious impulse, in his book The Extended Phenotype. In that book, he explained that it was not just bodies that genes could build and evolution could act on. Things like a bird of paradise’s dance, a termite nest and a beaver’s dam are also evolutionary adaptations just as much as the peacock’s tail and gubby’s spots. That, I think, is probably also true of the religious instinct. It is a part of our extended phenotype, an adaptation that humans have evolved because it is good for us. After all we have been religious for an extremely long time if archaeological evidence of burial practices and cave paintings are anything to go by. Even if it started off as a by-product, the religious instinct has clearly been selected for in the meantime. In fact, many evolutionary adaptations start off as useless appendages or features that natural selection works into something much more productive. Perhaps the initial impetus was from our desire to see causes in the world or to impart personality to rocks and the sky. This is certainly an area worthy of study and I expect that archaeologists can tell us rather more about this than has percolated into evolutionary biology.

The fact that religion is preserved by evolution doesn’t tell us which religions might be true but nor does it mean that they are all false. Imagine that we lived in a world where religion really had held back progress as Hitchens and Dawkins absurdly believe. In that case, it wouldn’t exist because religious societies would have been wiped out by the non-religious way back in prehistory. So, the next question I want to ask (skipping the ultimate origins of religion) is exactly how it has improved mankind’s lot. How does religion increase our ability to survive and procreate? To answer the question, I will be linking what we’ve discussed about game theory, the decline of violence and in-groups/out-groups.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Steven Pinker fails to boil blood

A correspondent kindly informed me that Steven Pinker, whose work I often find very interesting, has been trying to stoke up some controversy. He has suggested some questions that he thinks so controversial they will make people’s blood boil. Well, after reading through them, I reached for a thermometer and found my body temperature had not increased by a fraction of a degree. So, I thought I might try and answer his questions as well. But before I do so, I’d like to pose one of my own that Pinker did not feel it worth asking:

“In a hundred years time, will people look upon our attitudes towards abortion with the same horrified incomprehension that we feel about nineteenth century slavery?”

I’d be interested in Pinker’s answer. Now to his questions:

1: "Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?" A: Yes, obviously.

2: "Were the events in the Bible fictitious -- not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?" A: No. Many of them are confirmed by other sources.

3: "Has the state of the environment improved in the last 50 years?" A: Possibly. The fall of communism led to a big improvement.

4: "Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage? A: If it is anything like as prevalent as we have been led to believe, then many people are able to make a full recovery.

5: "Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?" A: Yes, according to Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse (which I will review in a few weeks time when I’ve finished it).

6: "Do men have an innate tendency to rape?" A: Most don’t. Some do.

7: "Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to violence?" A: Yes. But it was not a crime worth paying.

8: "Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?" A: Yes.

9: "Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized?" A: I doubt it. Increasing supply tends to increase demand.

10: "Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men?" A: No idea.

11: "Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?" A: Some elements of morality have evolutionary explanations. Others are much harder to explain in this way.

12: "Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized?" A: No.

13: "Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?" A: Never heard of this one before.

14: "Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?" A: No.

15: "Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?" A: Obviously, yes.

16: "Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?" A: A trick question, I think. Nazism was only around for 15 years. At that tie it certainly killed more than religions.

17: "Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?" A: No. Torture is ineffective as the victim just tells the torturer what he thinks he wants to hear. Even the Inquisition realised this.

18: "Would Africa have a better chance of rising out of poverty if it hosted more polluting industries or accepted Europe's nuclear waste?" A: Yes possibly. But the decision should be made by Africans, not western environmentalists or African dictators.

19: "Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?" A: It’s possible but I’ve only seen evidence that IQs are increasing.

20: "Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?" A: A well-regulated market might work and help reduce abortion. But it would be hard to avoid abuses.

21: "Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?" A: I’ve already argued in favour of this.

22: "Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?" A: I’m not convinced this would be beneficial.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Aristotle, Gravity and Wile E. Coyote

Wile E. Coyote’s greatest enemy is gravity. He just can’t beat it. But somehow he does manage to resist it for longer than most of us. We all know the scenes where he inadvertently runs of a cliff edge but keeps going until he stops. Only then does he fall. (Many people mistakenly believe that he falls when he realises he is only supported by thin air, but this just shows the danger of equating correlation with cause. He realises he is standing on thin air when he comes to a halt, but he actually falls because he is stationary.)

There is a crazy logic to this. As a very small kid, I remember it seemed plausible that this would happen if you did run off a cliff. Luckily I never tried it. Even though I realise today that this isn’t true, the humour of the situation depends on the fact that it might have been. We can relate to a world where gravity doesn’t take hold until your previous motion has stopped.

Chuck Jones, director of the Roadrunner cartoons, probably never read Aristotle’s Physica but he did manage to model Aristotelian dynamics nevertheless. The Physica was the main source of natural science in Christian Europe's universities during the Middle Ages until the seventeenth century. According to Aristotle, there are two kinds of motion – forced and natural. Natural motion means falling under gravity. Forced motion is anything else, for instance when you throw a ball. Now Aristotle believed that the two kinds of motion could not exist in the same object at the same time. A ball cannot move under the influence of gravity and the motion you impart by throwing it simultaneously. Thus, according to Aristotle, when you throw a ball, it travels in the direction you propelled it, gradually slowing down due to air resistance. At some point the air resistance means that it will stop. Then, gravity will take hold and the ball will drop straight down to the ground. So, only when forward momentum is used up does gravity come into effect. This is exactly what happens to the unfortunate Wile E. Coyote.

This suggests to me that Aristotle’s idea isn’t as daft as we historians often assume. Firstly, it is actually true of a ball thrown straight up into the air. The ball really does stop, stationary for an instant at the apex of its trajectory, before gravity drags it back down to earth. Secondly, Aristotle idea does have a twisted logic that a small child watching a cartoon clearly comprehends. We should be slow to mock it.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Jane Austin Rejected

From time to time, we unpublished authors like to take petty revenge on the publishing business that won’t accept our work. Usually, this involves sending them a bestselling book under an assumed name and publicising the fact they rejected this too. The implication is that most editors wouldn’t know a bestseller if it was waved under their nose.

The latest attempt to embarrass the unflappable was when frustrated writer David Lassman sent in various classic novels and got uniformly rejected. Only one of the editors and agents realised that they had just received a proposal for Pride and Prejudice. Of course, this is not strictly fair. While I have no idea if any of the other editors would have recognised classics from the nineteenth century, almost none of them would have read the material they were sent. So all this exercise proved is that editors don’t read proposals, which we already knew. The only embarrassing thing for the publishing houses is that they claim in their standard rejection letters to have carefully considered the proposal when, plainly, they haven’t. It is this dishonesty that gets me. My agent is powerful enough to expect feedback when a submission is rejected, but even then the comments by some editors reveal that they haven’t read the proposal. And if the publishing houses aren’t even reading submissions from literary agents, what hope do authors who are unrepresented have?

Newspaper columnists have been quick to come to the editors’ defence, claiming that Jane Austin is passé and so old fashioned. This rather misses the point but the attitude of these journalists is hardly surprising. They probably have books in the pipeline and don’t want to snap at the hands they hope will feed them. As for Penguin, they have responded to having with some real bile. It’s worth a read.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Latin Mass

The Pope has liberalised the rules under which the Latin Mass can be used. Like most Catholics, I welcome this move, although I am not expecting to see a Tridentine Mass being celebrated anywhere near me. This is a pity. When I was at Oxford, my usual Sunday service was at St Aloysius on the Woodstock Road next door to Somerville College. As this was an oratory church, it was not under the control of the local bishop and could celebrate mass in Latin as it wished. Indeed, this was what it did at the main Sunday service complete with a first rate choir and several kilos of incense. I wasn’t even a Catholic at the time but loved the show and the fact that the pews were stuffed full every week.

Needless to say, the media are portraying the Pope’s liberalising measure as a victory for conservatives. Even more oddly, the Anti-Defamation League has been trying to make a fuss over a prayer for the conversion of the Jews. This is strange for two reasons. Firstly, the Mass contains no prayer for the conversion of the Jews. The prayer in question is part of the liturgy for Good Friday (when there is no mass celebrated) and the new ruling has not the slightest effect on this. So the controversy appears to be the usual combination of journalistic laziness and mischief-making by a pressure group. The second reason the fuss is strange is that I cannot for the life of me see how anyone could object to being prayed for.

If Muslims prayed regularly for the conversion of Christians (maybe they do, I don’t know) it would not cause me even the slightest raised eyebrow of concern. I would be utterly indifferent or perhaps slightly flattered. Likewise, I have no idea why the ADF or any other Jewish person would object to a prayer asking for their conversion. From Christopher Howse in the Telegraph, here’s a translation of the prayer in question:

Let us pray also for the unbelieving Jews: that our God and Lord will remove the
veil from their hearts, so that they too may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ.

I might just be an insensitive bastard, but I cannot see why anyone would get their hair mussed up over this, especially as it is spoken in a language no one understands anyway.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Memes for the Trivial

Let me continue my discussion of evolutionary ideas on religion that I don’t find convincing. Another of Dawkins's ideas was the meme. Daniel Dennett picks up this concept as his explanation for religion in Breaking the Spell. A meme is a gobbet of culture or an idea that spreads from mind to mind. The point about a meme is that its success in spreading is not a function of whether the gobbet is true, useful, beautiful or good. Instead, Dennett postulates memes spread simply because they are good at spreading. This is a tautology, of course, but it is not as uninsightful as it sounds. After all, there is a law of economics that states that the value of anything is equal to what someone is willing to pay for it. This is also a tautology but somehow socialist economics was built on the idea that it isn’t true.

The problem with memes is that almost all the evidence suggests that, in the long term, ideas spread because they benefit the group that holds them. They are, in evolution-speak, an adaptation just as much as large brains and a biped posture. No one has managed to predict what makes ideas inherently likely to spread (think of the money to be made if you could do this!). Rather, sociologists have worked on the basis that the ideas that are successful are the ones that benefit their holders. This is true even of previously popular ideas like socialist economics which have now become extinct because they doesn’t work. A society based on socialism will always fail relative to a society based on a market economy.

So there may be room for memes as a short-term explanation of how ideas are transmitted but not as part of the long-term story of the evolution of culture. Crazy Frog, the Spice Girls, the Filofax and other ephemeral trends might well be memes in the sense that there is something about them that lets them leap through our culture and briefly appear ubiquitous. But then they also quickly die away because there was so little of substance holding them up. Other ideas, like modernism in art or structuralism in history, have an appeal which is essentially aesthetic. This allows them to survive for longer but means that they cannot fall back on their own usefulness as tastes change. The really big concepts upon which the modern world is based, that is things like democracy, the market, science and individual liberty, survive and prosper because they benefit us all. Some concepts, like free trade, survive even though most people, falsely, think they are a bad idea.

Thus, for everything except perhaps the most trivial, memes do not get us very far. We need a more robust explanation.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, July 16, 2007

How Evolution Tells Us that Religion is Probably a Good Thing

David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral, is interested in the evolution of religion. He has written a fascinating article for The Skeptic about his theories of religion and group selection. The article is couched as an attack (yet another) on Richard Dawkins. Dawkins bad tempered reply is rather odd because he admits that the parts of his book about evolution, to most readers the most interesting parts, are the least important.

I'm going to talk more about how Wilson's theories might help us understand the decline of violence and why religion is a 'good thing' in a few posts time. Firstly, though, I want to explain why two competing theories of religion - put forward by Dawkins and Dan Dennett, are non-starters.

Dawkins suggests, in The God Delusion, the religion is a harmful by-product of something useful. He uses the example of a moth's lunar navigation system causing it to circle in to a flame and incineration. Dawkins suggests that the propensity of children to believe what adults tell them is why they believe the religious ideas that they pick up from their parents. The main problem with this idea is that religion is not the result of a single factor, gullibility, but a wide complex of behaviours and beliefs. While it is possible that some of these are by products of something useful, it is vanishingly unlikely that they all are. Furthermore, because all these different religious traits gel so well together, it is likely that evolution has been selecting them as a piece to produce the human religiosity that we know today.

Besides, assuming that something is a harmful evolutionary by-product of something useful is assuming the exception before testing the rule. In general, we assume that a trait is an evolutionary adaptation that the organism has because it helps it out breed the opposition. It is premature to look for other explanations before we have done the leg work to discover whether or not a trait is adaptive and what its advantages might be. In the history of evolutionary theory there have been many cases where a trait’s advantages have initially escaped scientists’ notice. Further work has revealed how some forms of altruism, the peacock’s tail and (as Sloan Wilson explains) the gubby’s spots are all evolutionary adaptations that increase the fitness of their bearers.

This suggests to me that the starting point for many atheist analyses of religion is their own basic dislike for it. They assume the religion is a bad thing based on their own prejudices and inadequate anecdotal evidence. They then construct a theory that appeals to their instincts but has not scientific value at all. David Sloan Wilson, on the other hand, although an atheist himself, appears capable of looking at the subject objectively. As promised above, I will be returning to his work shortly.

In the meantime, two court cases were decided today in Britain. One declared that the slaughter of a Hindu sacred cow would be against the human rights of the group that looks after it. Another ruled that a teenage girl cannot wear an unobtrusive ring declaring her belief in chastity at school. If anyone doubted that Christianity is discriminated against in the UK while other religions are given a free ride, they need doubt no longer.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Alister McGrath on Calvin: It's Polemic but I Like It

Polemic appears to be the literature of choice at the moment. No one should be surprised that Christian responses to Dawkins and Hitchens have been rather polemical in themselves. Both sides use rhetorical devices that include accusing the other of being ignorant, not checking their facts and erecting straw men. These tactics all go back at least as far as Cicero and probably to Democritus.

A correspondent called Dan Bye has alerted me to some work he has done on Alister McGrath’s polemic The Twilight of Atheism. Now, less than two years after it came out, McGrath’s book looks like one of the least appropriately titled books of the decade. It’s right up there with Glassman and Hassett’s Dow 36,000 which came out in 1999, just before the tech-bubble burst.
Bye correctly shows that McGrath makes some mistakes in his comments on the fictitious quotation from Calvin referring to Copernicus. Regular readers will remember that the commonly quoted words of Calvin from his Commentary on Genesis “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus over that of the Holy Spirit?” were not written by him. Bye is not claiming that Calvin actually wrote these words. Rather, in trying to find out where the quotation came from, he shows that McGrath praises Thomas Kuhn for tracking down a source that Kuhn knows nothing about and, arguably, paraphrases Bertrand Russell unfairly. For me, the most interesting point that comes out of all this was to find that Kuhn believed Andrew Dickson White’s utterly unreliable History of the Warfare between Science and Theology to be a valid historical authority.

You might shrug. But Bye lets McGrath have it with both barrels for not having an iron grip on his facts while simultaneously accusing others (well, atheists) of being shoddy with the truth. The point is well made although we remain within the bounds of rhetoric rather than genuine argument. If Dawkins had made such a mistake, would I point it out as gleefully as Bye castigates McGrath? Of course. I’ve probably done it already. Would I rather that McGrath hadn’t made any slip ups. Absolutely, although I know how hard it is to eliminate errors completely.

Bye also discovered a possible source of the quotation in some early-modern controversial religious literature. It is ironic perhaps that this quote, so often used as an atheist weapon, should have been created for religious debate. Even three hundred years ago they didn’t check their facts when writing polemic.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How to Loose All Your Credibility in One Easy Step

It’s easy when you know how. A group of disaffected junior scholars decided to set up a panel called the Jesus Project. It is supposed to be launching a fearless investigation into whether or not Jesus existed. Now, when you are launching a fearless investigation into a question that almost nobody takes seriously anyway, you should be careful whom you associate with.

The Jesus Project is run from something called the Center for Inquiry which is an atheist pressure group whose main activity seems to be to run summer camps for the offspring of sceptics (no brainwashing there, then). The Project is to have fifty fellows and provides a list of them on its website. It is one of the funniest web pages I have ever seen.

Aficionados of Jesus Mythicism will recognise a few of the names – Robert Price, Richard Carrier, Herman Detering and Earl Doherty among them. Then we have the lunatic fringe – Freke and Gandy, who is hilariously described as “a renowned writer and an authority on world mysticism and classical civilizations” and Frank Zindler. With these names, it is quite clear that the Jesus Project is not to be taken seriously as a scholarly enterprise.

Then there are several real scholars. Sadly, they don’t all seem to approve of the project of which they are fellows. As shown here, John Kloppenborg, was listed as a fellow but not had any contact with it and April DeConick has ‘mixed feelings’. I see that Kloppenborg has now been removed from the list of fellows. I wonder how many of the others are fictitious as well.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Decline of Violence

My wife and I have just moved a delightful little village in the middle of Kent. While we were settling in, some of the neighbours came around to check us out. Surprisingly, none of them tried to kill us. They didn’t even form a posse to run us out of town.

In the context of human history, it is deeply strange that a new family could settle down with a different territory without fear of reprisals from the residents. You might think this is a triumph for private property, but it goes deeper than that. Even if we had moved into their back garden, they would have called the police rather than shot at us.

Given the carnage of the twentieth century, it is counter-intuitive but still true that the chances of being killed by violence have been falling, if irregularly and with upward blips, throughout history. In response to my recent post on mythical noble savages, a correspondent on my yahoo group recommended the book War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley. His description of all-out prehistoric war can be compared to the brutal but rule-bound prosecution of medieval warfare, as I discussed last month. Steven Pinker, in a recent essay, carries the story to the present day and notes that the casualty rate for the First and Second World Wars was nothing like as great as in earlier struggles even if the absolute figures were very high.

The question, if we accept the fact that human violence has decreased, is why did it? Pinker offers some thoughts in his article, correctly noting that we have not had time to evolve into more peaceful creatures. None of the three suggestions he makes quite add up, but the one with most mileage is, I think, Peter Singer’s. That is quite surprising given Singer is a pretty unpleasant piece of work in many respects, but he does seem to be groping towards a solution to the problem of the decline of violence.

Basically, he suggests that evolution gave us the ability to survive peacefully in small groups, the in-group. Many animals live in packs of a few families and defend their territory against all comers. Our closest relatives, the chimps, live in a pack, raid their neighbours, murder intruders and generally behave like real savages. Human beings, however, have figured out how to live in bigger groups and not resort to violence at the first instance. Somehow, we have accepted larger and larger in-groups who are to be initially trusted and treated as part of the tribe. This has had the inevitable effect that we use violence less often and the casualty figures drop.

The question neither Pinker nor Singer answer is why we have allowed our in-groups to increase in size. I suspect they would find the most likely solution disagreeable to their prejudices...

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Are Atoms Conscious?

Galen Strawson is a philosopher famous for his espousal of panpsychism. This is a spirited attempt (pun intended) to answer the hard problem of consciousness. The hard problem, of course, is the need to explain how we can have subjective experience in an objective world. In fact, there are many other formulations, but they all ask effectively the same thing – what is consciousness?

Strawson takes the hard problem seriously. For good, but not quite watertight, reasons, he rejects most common attempts at an explanation. Consciousness is real, he says, and cannot be written off as an illusion. He also rejects the idea of consciousness ‘emerging’ from unconscious matter by some mysterious process. Finally, he rejects dualism. All matter is the same and there is no special spiritual substance from which conscious minds can be constructed.

His solution is simply stated: everything is conscious. Consciousness is a fundamental property of matter which makes itself felt when it is combined in certain ways. Thus each of the atoms that make up our brains brings a little bit of mind to the party. With enough atoms interacting in the right way, the party turns into an orgy of consciousness.

The obvious rejoinder to this would be if atoms are conscious, what are they thinking about? More seriously, is panpsychism plausible at all? Most people would say not, but actually nailing Strawson’s arguments is rather more difficult than you might suppose. A recent book, Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, contains an essay by Strawson, lots of comments by unconvinced philosophers and responses by Strawson to the comments. It is sympathetically reviewed by Jerry Fodor for the London Review of Books. Fodor is no more convinced than most other people but can see that the hard problem does things to our assumptions such that categories like ‘plausible’ don’t really apply to suggested solutions.

I find Strawson’s ideas have some merit. Although I am not a physicialist, I do think that the physical is an essential prerequisite to the mental. Brains seem to be doing something very obscure to generate conscious experience and I think it is something rather more basic than just producing epiphenomena. Atoms may not be conscious, but they must have some property that allows them to combine into things that are.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Some personal notes

Last week I handed in my PhD thesis and I am now waiting nervously to find out when the viva examination will be. I know who the examiners are so at least that won’t be a surprise. I still haven’t found a publisher for my book. My agent, Andrew Lownie, is now pitching to American publishing houses where I think my sympathy towards Christianity’s contributions to the history of science are likely to play rather better than in the UK.

Despite all the rejections, I have learnt a great deal about the process of getting a book out. Enough people have said that my work is good enough to be published for me to feel comfortable on that front. More worrying is my lack of a profile. Most popular history is written by journalists or novelists because they have name recognition and plenty of friends in the media to ensure exposure for their work. Academics also write for the trade but their books tend to have one eye on the textbook market. Penguin’s various recent heavyweight tomes, such as Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation, all sell primarily to students and are expected to have a long shelf life to make up for their lack of up-front sales. Neither can exactly be called popular. Hawkwood by Frances Stonor Saunders (New Statesman arts correspondent); The Devil’s Doctor by Phillip Ball (New Scientist); History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr (BBC); and Persian Fire by Tom Holland (novelist) are more typical of popular history.

As for me, with neither a professorship nor a job in journalism, getting a book out is a struggle. Even Bede’s Library, which gets over 30,000 visitors a month, doesn’t seem to help (although the publishing industry has been notoriously slow to catch on to the internet and it may get them into trouble quite soon). As ever, I’ll keep you all posted.

At least handing in the PhD has meant I can now read what I like. I’m not really a fiction reader but I do like to be entertained. Of course, most academic books are rather turgid, but hopefully they are informative enough to make the effort worthwhile. If a book neither teaches me anything nor has any literary merit then I would rarely finish it. Recent examples of stuff not worth slogging through include Piers Paul Reid’s The Templars (another novelist turned amateur historian) and the derisory Human Touch by Michael Frayn (novelists turned philosopher). I will usually finish something that is easy reading even if it contains nothing new. Dawkin’s God Delusion and Bill Bryson’s History of Nearly Everything are good examples. Although I’ll finish them, I do tend to find them intensely annoying. The Holy Grail of the book world is something that both tells me a lot I didn’t know and keeps the pages turning at the same time. My current read, The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford (FT journalist) and Jonathan Sumption’s Albigensian Crusade fall into this category.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Back Early from Holidays....

...we got fed up with the rain.

I see that Karen Armstrong is up to her old tricks again. The excellent Damian Thompson is having another go at her on his Telegraph blog. As I’ve previously said, I feel uneasy about some of the attacks on Islam but Armstrong badly needs to learn some facts and stop playing to the Muslim gallery. Her comment that Islamaphobia started with the crusades is especially cringe-worthy. I presume that the fear felt by Christians in eighth century Spain at the advance of the Islamic armies into Iberia wasn’t a phobia because it was completely justified. I wonder how Armstrong would classify the fear felt by those affected by the recent spate of bombings here in the UK. The UK media are being criticised by in the Guardian's CiF blog for reporting that these awful events are being perpetrated by “Asian-looking men” and elsewhere for not being open to the possibility of the bombers being Buddhists!

On the subject of blogs, Daniel Hannan, also over at the Telegraph is always enlightening. In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that he is a close friend in real life. Once upon a time I was in favour of the European Union that Dan campaigns so vehemently against. I saw it as the modern reflection of medieval Catholic Christendom (whose borders it matches almost perfectly, aside from Greece and Romania), an alliance of civilised peoples united by a shared history and culture. Over the years I’ve become steadily more disillusioned and have now reached the point where, if our political masters ever deigned to ask us, I would vote for Britain’s withdrawal.

The problem is that the European Union is run as not a union of high culture and historical bonds, which are predominantly Christian. Rather it is run by an international elite of bureaucrats. Like everything else these meddlers touch, such as education or the BBC, the EU has become a complicated nightmare of political correctness and tribalism. On top of that, it is manifestly corrupt. Actually, if truth be told, the EU was always like this, but if there is one thing bureaucrats are good at, it is maintaining grand illusions and shouting down anyone who tries to puncture them.

Finally, if anyone is interested in the workings of UK politics, the best blog by far is Ben Brogan’s. He is the political editor of the Daily Mail, a paper for which I have a near pathological dislike. I’ve even trained my mother (a regular reader) to call it the Daily Bigot. Brogan’s blog, however, is essential reading (if wholly irrelevant to the normal subject matter of this Bede’s Library).

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.