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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Blog break!

I'll be away for a couple of weeks, much of it at the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP) conference at the University of New England, in Armidale. I'll look in from time to time, so keep those comments flowing.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Eight more random facts


Let's see if I can come up with a few more, while I'm in the mood:

1. My favourite TV show at the moment is definitely Doctor Who, which I've been watching as assiduously as possible from when I was a little kid.

2. I'm a sucker for the whole X-Men franchise, again dating back to when I was a little tiny kid and I bought a copy of the original X-Men # 4 at a school fete.

3. I can produce metrically perfect English sonnets on demand. It's just a "chip" that I seem to have.

4. I'm not actually named after Bertrand Russell, but I'd like to be. Don't tell anyone. My parents had a different Russell in mind.

5. I have an entry in Who's Who in Australia that dates from my days doing labour relations work, and has absolutely nothing to do with anything that could possibly attract anyone (leaving aside personal friends) to want to read this blog. C'est la vie!

6. I was always the third speaker on my school debating team. Not that we were ever that good; we did win the local school zone competition once, but that was as big as we ever made it, alas.

7. Somebody once pointed out to me - and I suspect it's true - that I look uncannily like the actor Gary Busey. This isn't necessarily what I would have picked if I'd been consulted by whoever decides these things, but what can you do? No offence meant to Mr Busey. (Actually, since my hair turned grey the comparison is usually with Bill Clinton, whom I do doubtless resemble in some ways, but I don't have his extraordinary time-management skills.)

8. I used to have a small, brown-scaled goldfish called "Little, Brown". Since his tragic demise, he's been replaced by a fish called "Little, Black".

Tagged!

Norman Doering tagged me with what is known as the Random Facts Meme. The meme rules are apparently as follows:

1. All right, here are the rules.
2. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
3. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
4. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
5. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.


Hmmm, since almost none of my friends seem to keep blogs I'm going to ignore rule 5. completely. However, I think it'll be fun to find eight random and little-known facts about myself, so here goes:

Here are my 8 facts:

1. I had my appendix removed when I was 11. I still have the scar and I'm prepared to show it to you if you buy me a few drinks.

2. I have a fetish for redheads (though I've never actually slept with one, of course ... not so much as a wink). Also for blondes (yum!). And brunettes, of course - brunettes are great. On the other hand, I never flirt when confronted by a pretty woman (and I have this bridge to sell you ...).

3. My first published short story was in the literary magazine Westerly, way back in 1982.

4. When hanging out in Second Life, I use the name "Metamagician Apogee".

5. When asked my favourite book, I am always unsure whether to say The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyevsky, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, or the Collected Poems of W.B Yeats.

6. The only sport that I follow seriously is tennis. I have a soft spot for Marat Safin, Amelie Mauresmo, Daniela Hantuchova, and various other guys and gals on the tour.

7. My favourite Shakespeare plays are Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest. I never really managed to "get" Hamlet.

8. My favourite classical philosopher is Epicurus. In more modern times, it's definitely David Hume.

What a week!

Phew! Almost over. I've had a solid load of exam marking to do this week, while also trying to finish the first draft of my Ph.D dissertation, so I've been kind of working around the clock. Time to take an evening off, or at least part of it, but I'm not entirely out of the woods yet. I need to attend an examiners' meeting tomorrow, and that first draft still needs a lot of work.

On Saturday, we'll be going away for a couple of weeks, so it all needs to be under control by then.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Nice IEET collage


V.R. Manoj created this nice collage of the IEET staff, Fellows, etc.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Naturalistic pluralism and the challenge of human enhancement

This is the first draft of my final section of my final chapter of my current study of human enhancement technologies. Given that this is the climax, I've allowed myself to write with a bit more of a rhetorical flourish than usual. I'll be grateful for any reactions that come my way.

Throughout this study I have examined the challenge of human enhancement technologies, both in a broad sense that covers a range of emerging technological possibilities and in a stricter sense that relates to improvements, beyond therapy, of the human body's form or functioning. I've approached these technologies from an entirely naturalistic perspective that identifies a plurality of acceptable sources for our moral ideas. These sources are things that human beings actually do value, disvalue, or fear, or, more accurately, those human values, etc., that survive rational reflection. Such an approach enables us to criticise the genealogy of traditional morals and to subject current moral intuitions to a degree of sceptical scrutiny. While we cannot step entirely out of our own values, we can certainly obtain some reflective distance from our immediate reactions of psychological comfort or discomfort, and from any gut-level urges to shout, "There oughtta be a law …!"

Naturalistic pluralism, as I've called my approach, has a strong sceptical streak, but it can explain and support much of our commonsense morality, insofar as the latter accommodates partial interests, competition, and some inequality of outcomes, and insofar as it rejects the superlative ambitions that often predominate in philosophical moral systems. In this respect, naturalistic pluralism stands opposed to utilitarian theories, whose criterion of moral rightness is maximum pleasure, or happiness, or preference-satisfaction (or whatever else utility might be thought to consist in).

Because naturalistic pluralism emphasises those things that human beings actually do value, it finds common ground with everyday moral ideas in a way that utilitarianism always struggles to do. Insofar as those values include personal autonomy, and everything that this involves, naturalistic pluralism can also find common ground with a range of liberal viewpoints. Insofar as utilitarians emphasise the relief of suffering, naturalistic pluralists can find considerable common ground with them, too - but the ground is not shared when utilitarians go further, pursuing their superlative ambitions. From the viewpoint of naturalistic pluralism, that is an unwarranted moralistic frolic. Nonetheless, there is much scope for naturalistic pluralists to explore the possibilities of consensus, or at least political compromise, with all these positions, and possibly others. Even if naturalistic pluralism does not catch on (under the name I've chosen, or some other) to the extent I hope, those of us who adhere to it, or to similar positions, have good prospects of influencing real-world political outcomes.

Naturalistic pluralists are interested in the full range of human values that survive rational reflection, so we do not look for any single overarching value that provides the key to moral philosophy, and we do not reject such plain, everyday values as people's wishes for longer and healthier lives, or such plain, everyday fears as the fear of age-related decline. Nor need we reject perfectionist values, relating, for example, to the enhancement of our own physical and cognitive capacities, or to the successful pursuit of art and science. Our viewpoint can embrace a mildly Nietzschean element that is conspicuously absent from much contemporary philosophy. On the other hand, we do not rely on anything as metaphysical as the objective "human dignity" or "worth" beloved of Catholics and Kantians. Since morality is based, in part, on our nature as social animals, naturalistic pluralists can support a degree of bias towards others of our own species, without making the vulgar speciesist claim that we Homo sapiens possess a special worth, independent of how we actually respond to each others' interests.

From the viewpoint that I have argued for, and sought to apply, contemporary debates about human enhancement are marred by an element of moralistic overreaching. Many philosophers and bioethicists (not to mention religious and political leaders, media commentators, novelists, filmmakers, and others with a dog in the fight) want to condemn and restrain what appear to be perfectly rational desires for better health, longer life, increased capacities, new reproductive options, and other benefits that human enhancement technologies may bring. The main point of this study is to reject such moralism. To do so, of course, is not to deny that there are some rationally-grounded fears about the consequences of some human enhancement technologies. Most obviously, genetic engineering could be used in ways that are not actually enhancing at all, but detrimental. Moreover, on any account, there are powerful reasons why much of the research into human genetics should be tightly regulated, in order to give reassurance about matters of safety.

Thus, it is justified for some moralised concern to be expressed about some possible uses of human enhancement technologies, and it is likewise justified for the state to assert a degree of control, partly because the ongoing viability of the social order theoretically could be imperilled by some (I think far-fetched) developments. Like others, I am alert to the possible impacts on social justice and social stability, but I also believe that these risks are frequently exaggerated. Most importantly, given the emotive overreactions of some contemporary thinkers - of whom Leon Kass is surely the most egregious example - and the political overreactions of many legislatures that have enacted savage penal statutes, I emphasise that philosophers can dissent.

Whether or not we are heeded in the short term, we can keep alight the candle of reason in what has become a very dark place. We can insist, perhaps politely, perhaps more passionately, on the need for careful, clear thought about the human - and eventually posthuman - future. We can object to the distortion of public debate that comes from feelings of disorientation or repugnance, from irrelevant or genealogically-suspect moral intuitions, from deference to religious hierarchs, with their spurious claims to moral authority, and from the all-too-common impulse to reach for the crude tools of moral condemnation and legal suppression. I trust that reason will ultimately prevail here, and when it finally does we will establish a basis to respond to any genuine dangers from human enhancement technologies. I have offered such a basis in this study, but these are early days, and my proposals will surely be improved upon by the work of others.

It's important, no doubt, that genuine dangers be identified. But whenever we find them lurking, somewhere in the gloomy penumbra of technological progress, there is always another question we should ask. We should ask why we can't avoid this danger, or that one, while also obtaining the benefits that human enhancement promises. Why not? Perhaps we'll find that we can.

The death of an embryo

I'm often amazed by claims that stem-cell research is somehow brutal to the embryos that are destroyed as part of the process, as though this were analogous to clubbing a child to death.

Let me draw on a few thoughts in my Journal of Medical Ethics article, "Stem-cell research on other worlds", and see if I can make the point once and for all. (Of course, I can't: the point needs to be made over and over, like every worthwhile point.)

Think about the early embryo, marked for destruction. First of all, there is no rational justification for thinking of it in the emotionally-charged and culturally rich ways that we inevitably think of babies and young children. We can be glad that we think of babies in that way - it conduces to family happiness, to the education and socialisation of growing human beings, and ultimately to social survival. But we don't have to extend that kind of thinking down to the most nascent human life.

Unlike children and adults, the embryo does not fear death. It cannot look forward to its birthday, or Christmas, or a hot date with the sexy redhead or dark-haired hunk who sits in the back of the science class. It is incapable of planning books or curricula or golf tournaments, of identifying with political causes, having a beer with a few mates, or falling in love. It has no networks of kin, loved ones, dependents, colleagues, or fans of the same football team, and it cannot commit itself to any projects that give it reasons to want to go on living and developing. Indeed, it has no wants. There is nothing at all that it is like to be an early embryo, and if death is a misfortune for it in some way, it is certainly not in the same way as for a human child, teenager, or adult.

Early embryos can't be treated brutally or harshly. They have no meaningful interests. If there is some kind of misfortune for an early embryo in never developing to point of being born, it is difficult to see why any moral weight should be put on a need to avert that kind of strange, abstract misfortune. Surely any so-called "interest" that we attribute to an entity which is unable to suffer pain or frustration, has no forward-looking subjective attachments to life, and does not know fear cannot outweigh the interests of actual adults and children whose lives, well-being, and hopes for the future depend on the development of new, effective medical therapies.

That won't be the end of the debate, but it really ought to be. I see nothing more that needs to be said.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Will God fade away? The future of religion.

Introduction

This post is based on an answer that I originally contributed to the new AskTheAtheists.com site, then refined in a post to Betterhumans. The original question was about whether it would be possible to achieve a world in which everyone is an atheist. Putting on my futurist hat, I said that I actually doubted it.

However, I do agree with others who considered the question on the original site that it would make a huge difference if we could bring about a better, more secure life for all. That would be a doubly good outcome: first, it would be good in itself to extend to the rest of the world the kind of life that is curently enjoyed by the majority only in advanced Western nations; secondly, there would be great benefits if the spurious moral authority of ancient texts and traditions - and claimed by modern-day pontiffs, priests, preachers, and pulpiteers - were thereby undercut.

I'm not silly enough to believe that all religious folks are beyond the pale of rationality, and that there can never be worthwhile alliances between religious moderates and purely secular thinkers. But I am terribly concerned when I see the kind of absurd deference that continues to be given to authoritarian, anti-rationalist hierarchs such as the current pope and his hardline representative in Australia, Cardinal George Pell.

If the universe could love and suffer ...
I suspect that the great French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, was probably correct, even if he engaged in a degree of hyperbole, that human beings have an unmet expectation that the world be intelligible in a particular way. We want to understand it in terms of human concerns, as if it could “love and suffer” like us. What often seems bleak about atheistic viewpoints is that they entail that the universe, taken as a whole, is simply impersonal and uncaring. If we have the expectation that Camus speaks of, atheism will disappoint it.

For Camus, this was a starting point for reflection. When we understand the true nature of the universe, it seems, so he thought, absurd and alien.

Explanations based on agency
Camus did not offer any scientific explanation as to why we should have this expectation, but the history of science and philosophy tends to suggest a willingness on the part of human beings to reach for explanations of phenomena in terms that involve some kind of intelligent agency. Likewise, some psychological studies suggest that we find such explanations more immediately commonsensical than the explanations discovered by science.

However, that does not take away the fact that supernatural explanations of natural phenomena have a very poor track record. We’ve seen this again and again: we now know, for example, that emotions are not caused by gods like Ares and Aphrodite; that the lightning does not come from Thor or Zeus; that earthquakes are never a sign of divine wrath; and that the multiplicity of human languages has perfectly naturalistic origins, and is not explained by the righteous anger of Yahweh when human beings tried to build a tower to the heavens; and on and on and on.

These discredited explanations have their psychological attractions, and we can speculate about why. (Perhaps explanations involving the actions of intelligent agents were especially useful to our ancestors, evolving as social animals in Africa, many thousands of years ago. Or perhaps there is some other reason why we think the way we do.) The problem is, once we move outside of a narrow range of phenomena that actually do involve the agency of other human beings, or at least the precursors of it in other animals, explanations in terms of agency are a failure. The further twist is that they tend to attract people (or many of them) anyway.

For Camus, once we understand this picture of the human situation, we can triumph over it. We can gain a kind of inner freedom when we realise that the universe does not guide us, and that it is up to us to sort out, and live by, our own values.

Camus may have exaggerated somewhat here. Many of our values are widely shared, since there is a human psychology that evolved along with human physiology. Still he had a point. Even if our values are encoded into us genetically, to some extent, we can take ownership of them as ours. We can live the life that strikes us as good, taking responsibility, perhaps succeeding in living with commitment and zest.

A secular future, or not for everyone?
Unfortunately, the solution for Camus may not be for everyone. Many people do not have the freedom, or resources, for projects that express their personal values to more than a minimal extent. People whose lives are seriously constrained by personal circumstances may find Camus’ vision psychologically unattractive, and continue to seek meaning in some external purpose, perhaps provided by God, rather than in their “inner freedom”. This is one reason for atheists to mute their scorn for people who see a certain bleakness in Camus’ view of the world, without finding anything liberating in it (as he did, and as I do).

If we hope that people will gradually turn to finding meaning in their own values and their sense of inner freedom, rather than in a worldview that tries to make the universe intelligible by positing intelligence behind it, we need to do more than put forward the intellectual arguments against religious belief. Much has to be done to change the conditions in which people actually live and work. I agree with the thought that this has already happened to a great extent in northern European countries, with their high levels of economic security, education, and personal freedom. Social changes in that direction are probably needed before any society can become mainly atheistic in outlook. Contrast the situation in the United States of American, an even wealthier country, but troubled by greater inequalities and a far weaker social safety net.

No matter what changes we introduce, we just do have this tendency to seek intelligent agency in the universe, despite our repeated failures to discover it. I suspect that even in the conditions most favourable to the emergence of a purely secular society, a certain percentage of people will continue to reach for supernatural explanations. The temptation will always be there for us, but that it is not to say we should yield to it. In very many ways, we'd be better off without that kind of hypothesis.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

PZ Myers at his best

This piece by PZ Myers, responding to an article by Stanley Fish, must be one of the best that Myers has ever produced. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Back from Convergence


We actually took the weekend off - and a bit of the two days on either side of it - to attend Convergence 2, the 2007 National SF Convention, here in Melbourne. Well, to be quite truthful, although we stayed in the convention hotel, we did sneak home for a little bit of Saturday and Sunday, partly to check up on Felix the cat (whom we'd left by himself), and partly because I did want to get just a little bit of work done on the thesis, which I'm racing against time to finish. I have a self-imposed deadline of the end of June for the first "real" draft, and other things don't stop happening in that time - e.g. I have a huge pile of exam marking to do next week.

Meanwhile, we were also a bit worried about our families, up in Newcastle, which was hit by floods over the weekend (they're okay, but more about that in another post).

Convergence itself was enjoyable, though I got to very little of the programming, except for the couple of panels on which I was scheduled: one about Second Life, and the other relating to whether there is any distinctive voice in Australian science fiction/fantasy, or whether we are like the 51st state of the USA. As to the latter, we all doubted that there is any need for a distinctive Australian voice, as opposed to distinctive individual voices. We also challenged the idea that Americans are all alike, either. That's not to deny that there are some "Australian" characteristics that people are more likely to be socialised into here than in some other places (perhaps a certain sense of irony and humour), but if those influence our writing it will happen unconsciously. There's no reason to force it. Hmmm, what I just said is really my own view, I suppose, but everyone else - Jack Dann, Donna Hanson, Stuart Mayne - seemed to be making points that were consistent with this, and there was a lot of agreement on the panel.

For some reason, I don't find myself hanging out with the Melbourne science-fiction fans from day to day, and in fact several of my closest Melbourne-based, sf-involved friends are actually not Melbourne-based anymore: Damien Broderick is living in Texas, these days; Janeen Webb and Jack Dann are down in Gippsland; and Alison Goodman has moved up to Brisbane. As a result, not many of the people with whom I am likely to hang out in an ordinary week are actually sf professionals or fans (and even those people - such as Paul Collins and Meredith Costain - are not immersed in organised fandom).

I often feel a bit disoriented when I first wander into an Australian sf convention, not knowing a lot of the people, and not having caught up for a long time with a lot whom I do know from back in the day. With people like Janeen and Jack, who were there (we went out to dinner with them on Friday night), we pick up easily from where we left off. With others, there's a bit of ice to be broken (oh, to be a bit less shy and not have that initial feeling!). But as the con goes on, the initial feeling passes, and I settle back in. By the end, I was really enjoying the convention, the company of old friends, and the chance to meet some new people.

Back to work now - there are books that must be read if the thesis is to get done, there's a stray review to write, some marking and admin crying out for me to complete (some students will submit late essays), and so on. I'll be fairly submerged in work for the next three weeks, and then it's off for two weeks to Armidale (for a philosophy conference) and Newcastle (to see family and friends).

Thursday, June 07, 2007

How much foolishness can you take from Cardinal Pell?

Sometimes I feel I've simply had enough. For the past few days, the Australian media have been feeding us a steady diet of foolishness from the local head of the Great Queen Spider Cult, Cardinal George Pell. For reasons that completely elude me, the egregious Pell imagines himself to be some kind of authority on morals.

He is now blathering about how unfortunate it is that the New South Wales lower house of parliament voted yesterday to amend state legislation - bringing into line with federal law that allows therapeutic cloning research (under absurdly tight constraints).

Yes, Pell - how dreadful that NSW will now allow medical research that just might save some people from the burdens of horrific diseases. How dreadful that this may involve the destruction of entities that have no sentience or rationality whatsoever. Once again, we see why the Spider Cult Vatican deserves absolutely no respect from any decent person with an ounce of human feeling.

Pell claims that he is still hopeful that the legislation will be blocked in the upper house later this month.

"I regret the vote of the NSW legislative assembly on cloning and hope that the legislative council will be better informed," he is quoted as saying.

Pass me the sick bag. I can't stomach Pell or the entire cult of misery that he represents.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Hitchens is pretty damn good

In the rather limited spare time I've had in the last few weeks, I've been working my way through some of the material that has come to be known as "The New Atheism", though I'm not sure what is supposed to be so new about it.

I've just read Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. What does one say about Hitchens? He's an implacable controversialist with a gift for powerful, memorable phrases; he's steeped in literature, high culture, and the societies of all the world's trouble spots, each of which he knows intimately, and at first hand, and describes with vivid detail and total confidence; he seems like a decent, generous, warm-hearted man, but when it comes to a verbal battle he fights to win, with no inhibitions holding him back.

I don't agree with Hitchens' every opinion. I disagree with him, for a start, about the disastrous war in Iraq, always a dumb idea, always a can of Dune-sized worms. Though he is pro-choice, he seems to me to concede too much to the enemy on the issue of abortion (though I think I now understand his position somewhat better, and I can respect it). I don't even especially like the sub-title of his book; surely religion, whatever its faults, does not poison everything. There are moderate, sophisticated religious positions with which I have no terrible quarrel; there are moderate, sophisticated, good religious people whom I count as friends. Some of the positions we're talking about here are not even supernaturalist, but draw on holy books and long-sustained traditions mainly as a source of inspiring metaphors. I can certainly live with that, and with much more than that.

But even the most moderate and inoffensive religious leaders will sometimes poison the day with spurts of unwanted, unhelpful, unimpressive moralising, so it's always salutary to challenge their assumed authority over our consciences and our minds.

Getting back to Hitchens, he's not infallible, and perhaps not exactly "great", depending on your standards of greatness, but he's pretty good. Let's say it people, he's pretty damn good. His new book mercilessly exposes the primitive, parochial, uncivilised thinking that dwells in the very heart of traditional religious belief as we inherited it.

If religion is ever going to morph into something truly beneficial, something plausible and positive that is worth retention in modern societies - or is at least worthy of our respect for as long as it lingers and shares our social space - it will need to look deeply into its own heart and find a way to change from within (where change must always come from, according to one of Hitchens' little jokes that I'll let the reader find for herself). I don't doubt that the good old Church of England, in which I was raised, and which has never bothered excommunicating me for my sparse attendance of its rituals, has gradually been doing this, living down its persecutorial past and its origin in depotism and kingly greed (not to mention lust). But even my poor, dear C of E has a way to go in consciousness-raising, as evidenced by its occasional acts of moral pusillanimity. See, as a fine example, its current mishandling of the issue of gay clergy.

Religion may not poison absolutely everything, and even Christopher Hitchens can't prove such a sweeping claim, but it sure needs to get its own intellectual and moral house in order before it presumes to lecture the secular world. We can respect it when, but only when, respect is due - I'd respect the current Archbishop of Canterbury, if he'd show us a bit of Hitchens-like tenacity and courage. But its institutions and dogmas continue to attract all too much respect from contemporary secular intellectuals. For God's sake - or whoever's - give religion some contempt, when contempt is due ... as it so often is.

Once we pan out from the well-meaning waverings of nice Anglican bishops, to survey the whole miserable empire of organised religion - the anti-human teachings of the Vatican, under its current and recent stewards; the egregious displays of American fundamentalist televangelists; and the still largely-unreformed world of Islam, with its lush outgrowths of suicidal fanaticism - the scene becomes that much uglier. It then looks all too much as if religion, in its generality, is what Hitchens sees it as: not a living cultural treasure to fuss over and preserve, but an intellectual and moral enemy to be engaged and defeated by all peaceful means.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

More on Michel Onfray

Here's an interesting Onfray-inspired article by Pamela Bone. I think that Bone is too wishy-washy in wanting to call herself "an agnostic". It's pretty clear that she has no belief in any deity, and the term "agnostic" often just strikes me as a euphemism used by people who are concerned not to cause offence. But sometimes causing offence is unavoidable, and no one has a right to go through life without ever being offended.

It's a pity I couldn't make it to Michel Onfray's interview with Phillip Adams on Tuesday night, after I'd encountered Onfray at his signing on Monday. Last night, I was talking to Rob Gerrand - Rob had made it along to the interview with Adams, and it sounded like he'd had an interesting evening.

I'm currently almost finished The Atheist Manifesto, which is a passionate, breathless, yet immensely erudite rant against the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is supremely readable, if sometimes a bit exclamatory for my taste.

Despite Onfray's obvious erudition, the book is not backed up by the kind of apparatus that I am used to in philosophical works, i.e. an index and - much more importantly - a bibliography and notes. Occasionally, the precise citation for a passage from, say, Mein Kampf is given in the text to try to nail down a point (such as Hitler's attitude to religion). However, much that Onfray asserts has to be taken on trust.

I spotted a couple of errors, which are fairly trivial, to be sure. One looks like a transcription error at some point in the writing/editing/translating process: Onfray records the fiery execution of Giordano Bruno as taking place in 1660, rather than in 1600. The other error is, I guess, just a bit of absent-minded carelessness - a reference to the world being imagined by Bible literalists as being 4000 years old, when they actually think it is about 6000 years old (having been created in approximately 4000 BC). Neither of these is fatal, but when the book hides its scholarship so much, with no real scholarly apparatus, they worry me. It makes me wonder how much I can trust Onfray to be getting all his facts right, or whether there are other examples of carelessness that I'm not smart enough to have picked up, however much erudition the author carries around in his head or has compiled in his research notes somewhere.

The other thing that I do find a weakness, even although it helps make the book so readable, is its sheer passion. Onfray isn't really interested in examining what can be said in favour of monotheistic religion. As I always tell students, I find it much more intellectually impressive to read something that acknowledges the strengths of the other side's position, even if these can be met, or contextualised, in some way. There's certainly not much of that in Onfray's book. It's all so one-sided ... and sometimes the attacks are quite speculative, as when Onfray more-or-less psychoanalyses St. Paul, with little to go on. This is really much like the highly speculative interpretations of the sacred texts that tend to emanate from theologians, and always stand in need of scrutiny.

All that said, I don't actually want to sound negative. It's important that books like this be written and published, challenging traditional ideas, and especially challenging the claims of religious institutions and leaders to wield moral authority. I especially admire Onfray's round rejection of the self-denial, false "purity", cruelty, wilful ignorance, and authoritarianism that the monotheistic religions have exhibited and supported all too often.

In fact, as I hope I made clear above, I'm greatly enjoying The Atheist Manifesto. In this translation, at least, Onfray's writing is pleasurable and witty, lucid, often elegant, always page-turning. The book is crammed with fascinating information, much of it arcane but all seemingly relevant to getting a true historical picture of the religions Onfray dislikes so much. But I do wish that I had a bit more confidence that it is all entirely accurate. I'd want to check some other sources before relying too much on The Atheist Manifesto.