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

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tolerating the intolerant

Having argued that we should not view Islam as essentially intolerant, I now ask, "What if we did?" Or, more generally, what if we identify any particular sect as essentially illiberal and intolerant?

It's all very well for sects A, B, C, and D to draw the conclusion that sect E wants no part of extending liberal tolerance to the others, but that doesn't automatically entail that it's a good idea to start persecuting sect E with fire and the sword. On the contrary, sect E's day-to-day activities are likely to be relatively harmless, and we could not justify criminalising them. The speech from sect E's members will still have value - there are good Millian reasons to extend freedom of speech even to the intolerant (for one thing, it's good for us to have our views challenged). Besides, there will be grey areas; the truth of the matter is that many sects show signs of intolerance, and perhaps none can be thought of as entirely pure if we apply the standards I've been using very strictly. Some public figures, such as Cardinal Pell, live in the grey areas - recall that the Catholic hierarchy gives lip service to a separation of Church and State and claims that its miserable morality - no contraception, no divorce, no stem cell research, no gay rights - has a basis in reason.

It may be that, in practice, there is little more that we should do about sect E, other than complaining and becoming distrustful. However, the overall political circumstances do shift if we come to the conclusion that certain sects (sects that are not so marginal as to merit passing over as irrelevant) are subverting the general ethos of liberal tolerance, or if there is pervasive low-level subversion of that ethos from a variety of sects. I think that, in those circumstances, we'd merely engage in some consciousness raising, but probably take no official action. The consciousness raising might make a member of sect E unelectable as a member of parliament, but there would be no law forbidding her from standing for public office.

But maybe there's more that we could do without abandoning our own values. In Turkey, a political party representing sect E would probably be banned. I don't propose that we'd go so far in Australia or other Western countries, and it probably would not be constitutional in any event.

This conundrum may suggest why it is a good reason to have constitutional provisions to protect us from the sect E's of the world. We may have to extend them a lot of tolerance in practice, even if they haven't signed up to make it mutual, but a strong Bill of Rights could severely limit what they will ever actually achieve.

I'm not sure of the answer to this one, so I'll throw the question open.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What I wish Waleed Aly had said

In People Like Us, liberal Muslim intellectual Waleed Aly spends a whole chapter attacking the idea of a separation of Church and State, and defending Islam from the charge that it is incompatible with secularism. He argues that the separation of Church and State makes no sense from a Muslim perspective, because Islam (or at least Sunni Islam) has no established hierarchy that could be called its "church" and no official doctrine that it could impose through the powers of the state. He is scathing about secularists in way that I find disquieting.

He describes an occasion when he spoke on a panel and was subsequently asked by a number of audience members who pressed him on his attitude to the separation of Church and State. He found the whole idea confusing, thinking it sufficient that if a politician brings specifically religious moral attitudes that are out of touch with the mainstream, then he or she will be electorally punished. In other words, democracy is the cure for any untoward imposition of religious doctrine and morality through state power.

Of course, audience members found this unreassuring, and it's no wonder that a number of them kept pursuing the issue (evidently with mounting frustration at his seeming obtuseness). Later, Aly spoke to one of his interlocutors but evidently still gave her no real reassurance.

What is surprising is that Aly never mentions Locke or Mill in his discussion of all this, and never discusses the principles on which a liberal state - such as Australia - stands. He imagines that the phrase "separation of Church and State" is all about struggles between kings and popes - issues that are of no interest to anyone in the contemporary context. He genuinely seems to have no understanding of what is really at stake in this discussion.

The question is not about kings and popes (though it is certainly relevant to the temporal ambitions of the current pope). It is about how religionists of any stripe can reassure the rest of us that they will not use the coercive power of the state to impose their contentious (and, let's face it, usually miserable) moral doctrines, should they come to command an electoral majority. We are concerned about the tyranny of the majority, not about the attempts of a minority to bring others into line ... for which political hubris the remedy would, indeed, be an electoral one.

Of course, it does not matter whether or not what is being imposed comes from a literal "church". The fear is that politicians who are able, somehow, to command an electoral majority will bring their religions' doctrines to the table and attempt to impose their doctrines on an unwilling minority. This is something that we have good reason to fear. Islam, of course, is a minority religion in Australia, but it may well become more popular in the future and meanwhile there could easily be cases of Muslims entering into alliances over particular issues with other religionists. Aly's interlocutors obviously wanted to be reassured about all that, and Aly failed to say anything helpful.

Unfortunately, the impression has been created by many Muslim leaders that Islam seeks to control all aspects of individuals' lives and does not shrink from using secular power to achieve its aim. We are all well aware of extreme examples in recent history, such as Afghanistan under the benighted Taliban regime. Until that fear is laid to rest, it is quite rational for the rest of us to fear Islam's political ambitions - which is one reason why the word "Islamophobia" is so stupid. A phobia is an irrational fear, but secular Westerners actually have perfectly rational reasons to be at least wary of Islam, as Aly himself fully appreciates and acknowledges.

It's true, of course, that religionists - Muslims; Christians; Hindus; fire worshippers; devotees of Thor, Aphrodite, Baal, or Quetzalcoatl; or whatever - often feel that their religious identity is something "given" rather than chosen, and somehow essential to them. It is not possible for them simply to leave it behind like checked-in luggage when they enter the public sphere.

Fine. That's understandable, but it raises the bleak possibility that they will use the public sphere as a means by which to impose religious doctrines, or specifically religious morality. Some may even see nothing wrong with this - and those are the people whom we have every cause to fear. If the Quetzalcoatlists or the Thorians take this stance, then they stand outside of the Enlightenment compromise ... and just as they can give no guarantee of tolerating the rest of us if they come to wield the coercive power of the state, they have no claim to toleration by us. If that is their attitude, they are outside the Lockean circle, beyond the pale of liberal tolerance.

However, it's way, way, premature to conclude that Islam falls into such a category. As I've written in earlier posts, Locke thought that atheism and Roman Catholicism were beyond the pale, but this has turned out not to be true - atheists can be peaceful and honest citizens as much as anyone, and while the current Catholic leadership appears less and less interested in the Lockean concept as it is understood today, and more and more inclined to impose its views by force of law where it can, Catholics have also made good citizens. The expansion of the circle of liberal tolerance to include a wide range of religious and non-religious worldviews has been a great success story in Western history. There is every reason to think that almost any religious sect can come to value the political benefits of voluntarily joining the circle.

So what should Waleed Aly have said?

Well, he could have said something like this:

"I cannot guarantee that I'll come to the political table setting aside my identity as a Muslim. But I can guarantee you this much: from within my understanding of Islam, I accept the political values of individual liberty and religious tolerance. I do not make the Christian distinction between Church and State, but I realise that what you are really concerned about is whether I understand that I am living in a liberal society and whether I accept the distinction between sin and crime. Yes, I do understand and accept those things. From within my own view of the world, I can see the necessity for tolerance of all views that advocate reciprocal tolerance. I also accept the political need for something like John Stuart Mill's harm principle (we can discuss the details of the 'something like', but I am not using weasel words). I can say unequivocally that it would not be my intention to prohibit behaviour merely on the ground that it is theologically wrong in my understanding of Islam. I will look for clear secular harm before I invoke the might of the state in an attempt to restrict liberty. I will not invoke the superiority of a way of life that is favoured by Islam, and I will respect the right of others to pursue their own conceptions of the good, however foreign to Islam's values. Nothing in my understanding of Islam prevents me acting in accordance with those liberal political values, knowing that I live in a liberal country."

I have hopes that Aly could give that undertaking - or something very like it - sincerely. Elsewhere in his book, he shows that he does value religious tolerance and does understand the distinction between the theological notion of sin and the secular political notion of crime. Many liberal Muslims, perhaps most, could probably give such an undertaking - perhaps with more sincerity than some Christians.

That is what we need from religionists when they enter the public sphere. When Aly was grilled by the audience at his panel session, that is all he need have said.

It would be reassurance enough.

Workplace profanity boosts morale

Via Udo Schuklenk's blog, I came across this enjoyable little story that reports a study of workplace profanity.

The study found that swearing on the job can reduce stress and boost employee morale. Frequent swearing can reinforce solidarity among staff and enable them to express their feelings, such as frustration, and to develop social relationships.

Abusive and offensive swearing should be eliminated where it generates greater levels of stress, rather than helping to relieve it. Up to a point, though, swearing is actually beneficial. Imposing a ban on profanity, and reprimanding staff for it, might seem like strong leadership, according to the research, but it would remove a source of solidarity and could lead to decreased morale and work motivation.

So go ahead, folks. Curse and swear away.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speech

Having used my previous post to criticise Ayaan Hirsi Ali over a recent interview that she gave to Reason magazine, I'll make up for it just a little. Here is the link to this much more likeable speech that she gave not long ago at a conference in the United States (you can easily find the second half - the question-and-answer session - from there, if interested).

In this conference session, she's much more faltering and nervous than when I've seen her in appearances on television. Perhaps she was intimidated by speaking in front of such intellectual heavies as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. If you go to the end of part two, she seems humbled and overwhelmed after Dawkins speaks from the floor, offering to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Be that as it may, her story is moving, and she's certainly a charismatic figure. For now, I'm still a fan, but I'm getting worried that she's drifting into an extremism of her own. I'm not so much bothered that Hirsi Ali associates with relatively right-wing organisations, such as the American Enterprise Institute - that's her business, and ironically enough no left-leaning think tank is likely to fund the work of a public intellectual with such an uncompromisingly anti-religious message. I'm concerned, rather, that she seems unable to envision a way to engage with the world of Islam without violent conflict.

In the speech, and elsewhere, she has good, solid stuff to say about the Enlightenment ideas and values that she studied in the Netherlands, on the long intellectual and emotional journey that has made her one of the most prominent of all critics of Islam. Now, if she could just find a policy response to the tension between Islam and the West ... beyond the simplistic idea that the former must be "crushed" before it can be transformed.

That's too negative, too hopeless, much too hard to stomach. We need to find something better.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and civilisational war

This interview that Ayaan Hirsi Ali did with Reason magazine is another example of the kind of thing that we don't need to hear from the New Atheists.

Hirsi Ali's rhetoric, her claim that we are already involved in a civilisational war with Islam, is all wrong. For example, is it really tenable to claim that we are "at war" with the communities of "very liberal" Pakistani and Indian Muslims in the US that she refers to in the interview (leave aside all the good, liberal Muslims elsewhere)? She denies that moderate Islam is the solution to current tensions between radical Islam and the West, but that is a massively premature claim, and meanwhile what are those liberal Muslim communities supposed to do if the US takes her advice and really does adopt an official stance of warfare with Islam itself?

Let's be clear: I've been a fan. I admire many things about Ayaan Hirsi Ali - her intellect, her courage, her dignity and composure, and even (let's be politically incorrect) her beauty. I totally enjoyed Infidel, and I fully support her campaign against the barbaric elements within Muslim cultures - the honour killings, the crazy fatwas, the genital mutilation of girls, the violent prohibition of apostasy, the theocratic aspirations of benighted mullahs. I don't sententiously call Islam a religion of peace, because Islam is not one thing - and often it is nothing of the sort. Far from it.

But when she claims, point-blank, that we're in a war against Islam itself, that's surely a dangerous exaggeration. Yes, we must confront theocratic tendencies, from whatever source, with the power of our ideas. Yes, we need to re-affirm the Enlightenment and the Millian ideals of liberty. And I agree with Hirsi Ali that new policies may be needed whereby we cease to extend so much tolerance to the truly intolerant. But talk of "war" against an entire world religion, without distinctions and qualifications, really worries me.

I want to see those liberal Muslims, whose existence Hirsi Ali acknowledges, stand up proudly and declare unequivocally that they support Lockean tolerance and individual liberty, that they are glad to join the Enlightenment compromise that desacralises politics, and that they accept, from within their own worldview, that anywhere where Islam can be practised without persecution is already the house of Islam, not the house of war.

But they can hardly do that if Western societies claim to be at war with Islam itself - as opposed to some of us committing to a struggle against all forms of theocracy - and if we actually do commence a policy of persecuting Muslims (we're perilously close to the line already, and we've sometimes stepped over it). The last six years of disastrously incompetent American foreign policy, aided and abetted by Australia's government, among others, have made the situation of liberal Muslims almost impossible, as far as I can see. Let's not make it even worse.

More generally, I'm disappointed with the whole interview. Hirsi Ali is all over the place - none of it seems thought through - though the interviewer gave her ample opportunity to explain her position.

Apart from the recommendation that we close Muslim schools, I couldn't see much there that was concrete. All the stuff about how terrible it is that our enemies (and the extremists concerned are, indeed, our enemies) express their hatred of us by burning our symbols left me thinking, "So what?" Yes, people who hate you will find ways of expressing it. And?

A final thought: this is embarrassing for more moderate people who see themselves as in an intellectual and social struggle against theocratic elements in the modern world.

Speaking for myself, every day I see religious conservatives taking unenlightened political stances on issue after issue - whether it be gay rights, abortion, stem cell research, human enhancement technologies, AIDS policy, or any of a host of others - and I've concluded that it's not good enough just to fight these issues one at a time. The fundamental belief systems of our opponents are the problem. They merit searching, sceptical critique. Accordingly, I cheer for the contributions of Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, and so on, to public debate. Collectively, these form a natural and valuable response to what we've been seeing from religious conservatives over the past decade.

But that doesn't mean I must cheer for the more warmongering rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, much as they are extraordinarily charismatic individuals whose voices are of great value when they do no more than proclaim the beauty of secularism. When they go further, when they want to declare war - literal war, involving force and violence - against a particular religion, they are going too far. They are going to extremes, and I think we have no choice but to take a stand.

This is not something we've signed up for.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Church and state - back to the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment idea of a separation of church and state is currently under attack from several directions. Theocrats, communitarians, and anti-foundationalist radical intellectuals all claim that the idea lacks foundations, and for different reasons they all seek to sweep it away as a plank in the structure of the modern liberal state. Some of these people, of course, are highly illiberal in their worldviews. I'll get back to that in my final comments.

J. Judd Owen's book Religion and the Demise of Liberal Rationalism: The Foundational Crisis of Church and State includes a powerful response to anti-foundationalist critiques of the vaunted church/state separation, placing it in its orginal seventeenth and eighteenth century context. Whether the idea needs to be abandoned, modified, or strengthened, in current social and political circumstances, it will help us if we can clarify what it was originally all about.

Owen's account chimes well with my understanding of the Enlightenment and my own liberal values, so I'm simply going to synthesise and summarise it here for future reference ... before offering a few paras of comments in response.

He observes that the principal political ambition of the liberal Enlightenment was to create a reasonable political order by ending the worst consequences of the fanatical, clashing religious orthodoxies: consequences such as persecution and bloodshed. For John Locke, writing in support of religious toleration, it was a fact that no universal agreement could be forthcoming on the ultimate question of salvation of the soul. From this, he attempted to bracket off intractable religious disputes from practical politics.

For Locke, temporal authority trumped spiritual authority, and the limit of toleration could be determined by the need to conserve the political order. He found the basis for political common ground in a distinction between the goods of this world and those of the next. The goods of this world, such as the security of earthly possessions, are the sole business of the state, while the salvation of souls is the sole business of the church (in its various sects). Failure to make such a distinction, and impose a religious orthodoxy, leads to volatile political conflicts here on earth.

This raises the question as to why the might of the state should not be directed to both ends, temporal and spiritual. Locke's answer considered a difference in the ways these ends could be secured - one would not trust one's soul to whatever magistrate was in power, so long as the limits of understanding rendered theological disputes intractable. By contrast, the state had means that were eminently capable of dealing with such problems as criminal violence, theft, and fraud, or the incursions of external enemies.

However, what about the spectre of religious zealots who would not be content to restrict the state to such secular ends as peace and security, and would simply deny that these were the highest political ends? Locke's response was that it was not religion as such that caused political disturbances, but oppression and persecution - if the threat of these could be removed, the various sects would become peaceable. On this account, if people's primary needs - such things as safety and security - could be met, then human beings would be religious in varying degrees but not with revolutionary zeal.

The aim of the Enlightenment thinkers was to transform religion so as to remove its tendencies to violent zealotry. The state could do so not by initiating yet one more religious sect to be placed above the others, but by attempting to turn political attention away from theological quarrels and sectarianism, depoliticising the sects.

While Enlightenment liberalism sought to appear neutral on matters of religion - by not siding with a particular theological position - it did so in the service of a political end that was not value neutral.

Within the Enlightenment framework, the response of the liberal state to religious disruption is to deny all sects and churches the status of orthodoxy - which removes the ground for either persecutions or for the political hegemony of any sect in particular. The liberal state proceeds, strategically, to be neutral on religious questions. In a sense, religion is seen as too important to be left to whatever ruler or electoral majority prevails at a particular time.

As Judd emphasises, this is really a strategy, or a policy, rather than a theory. That is, there is no theoretical stance above and beyond whatever account of human nature is built into an analysis such as Locke's, plus the need to protect the solid, politically necessary value of civil peace, plus the practical effectiveness of the chosen course of action.

Such thinkers as Thomas Jefferson, who argued for a wall of separation, did not believe or intend that this strategy would have a neutral effect on the theological views of citizens. It was intended to soften the differences between contending sects, produce some blandness, and foster a degree of private indifference to religious orthodoxy. However, it also supported the right of individuals to seek out truth themselves, in discussion with the contending parties.

Now, some comments of my own. This general strategy has, indeed, served Western nations rather well since the eighteenth century, even though it has not been instituted everywhere as a formal separation of church and state, and even though it may not have been followed with total rigour in any jurisdiction. As carried out in practice, the Enlightenment approach may not be entirely satisfactory to everybody, or to anybody, but to the extent that it has grown from a practical strategy to a political principle (albeit one with no theoretically deep foundations) it seems worth defending. Most people can find a basis to give it at least some support from within their respective worldviews ... although, alas, there is no proof that every worldview can provide such reasons.

Even if we can't insist that people totally abandon their religious commitments in the political realm, we can at least ask them for a high degree of political tolerance for ideas that do not mesh well with their individual religious beliefs.

At the same time, ideas of church/state separation and religious tolerance do not provide a substitute, from anyone's viewpoint, for debate about the truth of particular religious and similar ideas. They certainly do not require that private actors must discuss the religious views of others with any special respect. Tolerance does not go that far.

Because the Enlightenment strategy is ultimately "just" a strategy, it is open to modification. We might even abandon it, if new circumstances so dictate. However, I suggest that we do not do so except for the most compelling reasons. The advice of Locke and Jefferson, and other Enlightenment figures, has worked too well, and the alternatives are too untried. While it may, technically, be a mistake to claim, as I sometimes do, that the relevant Enlightenment ideas are fundamental - we can tell a story about how they are historically justified - they are nonetheless enormously valuable and important.

I often read or hear secular thinkers who suggest various actions that the religious would surely experience as persecution, and I try to emphasis that religious tolerance includes secular people tolerating religious practices that we may not like, and to insist that separation of church and state goes both ways. I.e., the churches should not attempt to impose their contentious views using the coercive power of the state, but nor should state power be used to prevent people practising their religions.

As Locke knew, there are grey areas here: the state may have good secular reasons to take actions that will have a negative effect on some religious groups, even if its leadership is not motivated to carry out persecution for its own sake. As the role of the state has expanded beyond internal and external security for its citizens, the scope for clashes of public secular values and private religious ones has also increased. But there is room for sensitivity whenever a new issue arises. Sometimes, issues are best addressed by means other than the exercise of state power even if it appears legitimate.

Not to put to fine a point on it, my real concern is how all this stands up within the current world order, one very different from the Enlightenment era, though with some of the same problems as bedevilled pre-Enlightenment Europe. Today, liberal societies face several varieties of emboldened politicised theology, whether from American fundamentalist Christians, from the warriors of radical Islam, or from a conservative Vatican leadership with strong ambitions to influence the policies of Western governments. There can be few more important questions than the question of what strategies will best address this challenge and carry us through a difficult new century.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Freethinkers unite!

PZ Myers gets it right in a recent speech posted on his blog, Pharyngula. The whole thing is worth a look, but I especially appreciated these words:

We're a motley mob of deists, agnostics, secular humanists, pantheists, atheists, and who knows what else, and organizing seems to be against our nature. We have to resist that; we have to be willing to work together while recognizing the diversity of perspectives under the umbrella of freethought, and treat that variety as a strength rather than a weakness.

In my not-so-humble opinion, this is great stuff, as I commented over at Pharyngula. It's exactly the right message (though I should make clear that I'd include some of the nicer, politically reasonable, theists and cultural religionists in the "who knows what else").

On the one hand, anyone who is for individual liberty, tolerance, reason, and science, and against religious dogma, authoritarianism, and the various moralities of misery that we find in the world is likely to be fine with me. I'm putting in the words "likely to be" because it strikes me that some people who'd see themselves as falling under that description can nonetheless have moral and political views with which I want no association. If this is too obscure, then ... hint: I don't think that I'm going to be able to work well with hardcore Randian libertarians, though some folks with libertarian leanings, like Ron Bailey, may be valuable allies in the political struggle against neo-Luddites.

On the other hand, any alliance I have with any of these people - whether over specific aspects of my own agenda or over the broader struggle for a genuinely liberal and compassionate society - shouldn't make me shut up about disagreements. The fact is that I'm working with stringent naturalist assumptions, consider this rationally justified, will continue to critique supernaturalist viewpoints as and when appropriate, and will go on being vocal about such issues (albeit in a more conciliatory way than some).

All that said, we live in a world where many kinds of deep conservatism seek to control political power, to the detriment of our freedom and of human advancement. Worse, elements of the Left have been dragged into an alliance with traditional conservatives over such issues as genetic technologies. Those of us who form the party of reason need to establish the broadest alliances that we meaningfully can.

Polished media performer - not

Last night, from midnight to 2 am, I did a radio gig with a small group of others on the 3RRR Party Show, hosted by Headly Gritter and his zany producer, DD. Headly's other guests in the studio were an archeologist from La Trobe and an astrophysicist from Swinburne (plus various people on the phone from time to time). It was not my finest hour - well two hours - though maybe not my worst, either.

I've done quite a lot of radio interviews by telephone, but never anything remotely like this gig, and I must admit I was too nervous to relax into the conversation until we were deep into the two hours. It really is quite different being placed in a room where you don't feel at home, with a bunch of people you've just met, headphones on, a huge microphone sticking in your face, and an expectation that you be witty and cogent for an audience that you can't see. There are particular skills involved. For me, it was scarier than having to perform in front of a meeting hall or a lecture theatre or even in a courtroom.

On the other hand, you soon get used to it.

By the end, the setting had already taken on a kind of familiarity, I was feeling less terrified of saying something stupid, and was actually thinking that I'd enjoy doing something like this again, having had a taste of it. I wonder whether they'll invite me back.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Semester's end

I actually found myself feeling a little sad yesterday, as I drove home from the Monash campus at Clayton. I'd just conducted my last couple of classes for this year - two tutorials in the first-year philosophy subject that I was teaching in second semester, in which students were allowed to take two out of three options. I've been teaching classes of students who'd opted for the (arguably slightly incongruous) combination of "Metaphysics: Time, Self, and Freedom" and "Philosophy of Sex".

I enjoyed this teaching semester and felt that I'd managed to build a bit of rapport with my classes over the three months, and I'll now actually miss teaching, at least a bit, over the summer break (though I do desperately need to get some writing done; in particular, I'm now anxious to complete and submit my thesis, which should have been finished months ago but ran into some problems that I'm still trying to sort out).

Over the past few years, I've interacted with perhaps a few hundred young people, mainly in their late teens, and it's been a positive experience. The Philosophy of Sex part of the course has been especially interesting - we've managed to discuss everything from Plato's Symposium through modern debates about pornography and gay marriage, to conceptual analysis of such ideas as perversion and seduction ... usually with seriousness and decorum, despite the inevitable light-hearted moments. More generally, from what I've experienced while teaching at Monash since 2004, my generational cohort of baby boomers and Gen Xers will be leaving the world in pretty safe hands down the track. Gen Y seems to have a nice mixture of idealism and scepticism.

The immediate point, though, is to wish good luck to my first-year students in their exam next week, and likewise to the couple of fourth-year Honours students who are currently writing long essays under my supervision. Go get 'em!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Islam and liberal society

While we're on the subject of Islam and its blanket demonisation by some Western thinkers let's briefly consider People Like Us: How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and the West, by Waleed Aly. Aly is another Monash person, and one who has established a good local reputation as a spokesperson for Muslim thought.

He doesn't like being called a "moderate" partly, if I understand him, because it might imply that he is less religious, or has less faith, than other Muslims. I.e., it might suggest he is "only moderately Muslim". Since I consider piety and faith (not to mention humility, sexual modesty, and various other things like that) to be more vices than virtues, I'd consider calling him a "moderate" to be paying him a compliment, if that was its meaning. In fact, the word may imply no more than that someone is tolerant of other viewpoints and unwilling to use force. In any event, perhaps Aly would be prepared to accept being considered an educated, refined, liberal Muslim - or something similar. I'll call him a "liberal Muslim" until such a time as I hear that he dislikes that expression, too.

I'm going to give Aly's book a plug. It's really worth looking at what a highly articulate liberal Muslim has to say about the disastrous geopolitical relationships that exist today, involving Islam. While I have the sense that Aly is reluctant to acknowledge just how much of this Islam has brought upon itself, or to detail how oppressive Islam has been in the past, I clearly have my own biases. What I'm willing to concede to him - and I hope I'm right in doing so - is that classical Islam was no more oppressive to non-Muslims than was Christianity to non-Christians - even in recent centuries. It was more tolerant than medieval Christianity.

Indeed, I'm willing to accept that classical Islam was no worse than Christianity today, as experienced in many parts of the world. Step outside of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Western Europe, and the vicious dog of organised Christian religion still has plenty of bite; it hasn't been tamed everywhere.

Moreover - though Aly does not argue this in any clear way - there may be seeds within classical Muslim thought for the acceptance of liberal political arrangements. I really hope that this is true.

Aly does argue, explicitly and quite convincingly, that what contemporary Islam needs is not a Reformation but a Renaissance. We'd all be better off, he suggests, if more Muslims could rediscover the more enlightened elements in their own historical tradition. Unfortunately, to the extent that Islam has already been capital-R Reformed it has often been in a less tolerant and sophisticated direction.

Unfortunately, People Like Us does not have an index! Accordingly, I can't see whether it even mentions Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and Mill (or, say, Montesquieu). It does not discuss these figures, and none of their works are listed in the "Notes on sources" at the back. This is unfortunate, because I'd like to see someone like Aly engage effectively with the tradition of Enlightenment liberalism, with its emphasis on religious tolerance and individual liberty (especially liberty from the imposition, by way of the coercive power of the state, of specifically religious morality).

I'm going to come back to this issue in a later post, because right now it is critical that Islam find some genuinely liberal intellectual leaders who can provide reasons to endorse Enlightenment liberal values from within Islam's own traditions. Without this, I fear that we really are headed for the kind of civilisational collision that is so often written and spoken of (by people like Samuel Huntington, and now with the clear blessing - as it were - of Christopher Hitchens). That would be a disaster. Instead, we need to engage intellectually with Islam and try to find a modus vivendi.

On the other hand, there's no way that I (for one) will be giving up the central political ideas of Locke and Mill. There are some things that are non-negotiable and worth fighting for.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hitchens at his best

After complaining about the militarist side of Christopher Hitchens yesterday, let me point out this performance in a new debate with Alister McGrath about the value of religion. It seems to me a bit of mismatch: McGrath is intelligent, moderate, and sometimes engages sympathy. Part of his problem as a debater is that he has both a waffly style - he's too gentle and indirect, with expressions such as "What I think I'd like to say to that is ..." - and some unfortunate mannerisms. This can be off-putting, can distract from whatever substance there might be in his arguments.

By contrast, Hitchens is a superb live debater with a bulldozing style. He also had a strong set of points to make, and was obviously comfortable with them all. He's made these points so many times by now that the presentation of them has evolved into a very powerful form. You'd think he'd be getting bored making them over and over, as he debates various opponents, but in this presentation there's no sign of it.

One point that I always find annoying in such debates is that the religious apologist inevitably brings up the old canard about the supposed need for a metaphysical grounding for morality. The non-believer then suggests some kind of naturalistic grounding, based in evolutionary psychology or social necessity, or whatever. Nothing is ever clarified. In fact, it's not at all obvious either that morality needs any metaphysical grounding or that any naturalistic grounding it has is just one thing. The story may be quite complex, and secular moral philosophy and moral psychology are still working it out. That doesn't detract from the widespread practical agreement on at least some core moral ideas, or from the fact that we need morality to meet certain human interests, even if nailing down the exact nature of those interests (and the exact nature of the morality we need) is difficult. Moreover, no religionist has ever told a sensible story as to how morality could have a philosophical grounding even if a being like the Christian deity existed. The whole issue of moral arguments in support of God's existence is such a red herring.

The truth of it, I suppose, is that there are people who crave a simple support for their moral beliefs, and want no complications or uncertainties. There's a fear out there that religion plays upon. To borrow an image from somewhere in John Barth's oeuvre, we're like Loony Tunes characters who have run off the edge of the cliff. When we moralise, we're suspended in thin air, with nothing beneath to hold us up. Or so the fear goes. But that's the wrong way to think about morality: it's something we create, socially, but to meet real needs. It's not just arbitrary, leaving us hanging in air, and that's not the only alternative to a religious account.

Anyway, I suggest that Hitchens won this pretty clearly - certainly at the level of performance, and I think at the intellectual level as well.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ibn Warraq on committing adultery and getting stoned

At normblog a few days ago there was a nice report on a debate about Western values. More specifically, the motion under debate was: "We should not be reluctant to assert the superiority of Western values." (I found this via Blake Stacey's excellent blog: Science after Sunclipse).

What are Western values? Well, evidently they were defined along the lines of democracy, the rule of law, equality before the law, human rights, freedom of speech and opinion, and self-critical rationalism. I suppose that's a reasonably indicative set of modern, largely liberal values. Of course, there might be others, such as separation of church and state (or however that distinction is best made) and individual liberty (which, arguably, goes beyond any of these without entirely outflanking or subsuming them) and tolerance of differences.

There's also the complication that some of these values have equivalents, or potential precursors, in other traditions. Let's not forget that even such a compelling idea as religious tolerance has taken its current form quite recently; John Locke put a powerful practical justification for it, but we have now gone far beyond Locke, who did not want toleration for Roman Catholics or atheists. Some other cultural and religious traditions may yet have the intellectual resources to accept a broadly-based religious tolerance from within their own viewpoints.

It's reported that Ibn Warraq, a high-profile critic of Islam, and certainly a staunch defender of the relevant Western values, concluded the debate with a zesty punchline: "Finally, I do not wish to live in a society where you are stoned for adultery; I prefer to live in a society where we get stoned first and then commit adultery."

What can I say?

He went warring and drinking and blaming gods: Hitchens and alcohol

Pharyngula has been the site for heated (and often off-topic) discussion about some recent comments by Christopher Hitchens at a "Freedom from Religion" convention in Wisconsin. Apparently, Hitchens took the opportunity to urge a more violently militaristic approach to the current tensions between the West and much of the Muslim world. If he's been reported accurately, he has, in effect, declared war on Islam and called for the infliction of massive casualties if we in the West are to prevail.

This, it seems to me, is the last message that we need to hear from a major public intellectual such as Hitchens. We may, in some metaphorical sense, be at war with terrorist networks, but to imagine that we are at war - literal war - with Islam itself, or with Muslims as a group, is starting to sound a little crazy.

A lot of Hitchens' critics blame his wilder comments on his supposed alcoholism and alleged penchant for drunkenness. Ho hum! It's amazing how readily some self-identified "rational" thinkers can resort to reductive, moralistic garbage whenever they find themselves in radical disagreement with somebody. Despite the slightly facetious title of this post, I have no particular reason to believe that Hitchens has any serious problem with alcohol ... or that any such problem, if it does exist, has impaired his judgment. If, as widely rumoured, he does have a special fondness for whiskey, then good for him. I'm partial to a drop myself. Can't we engage in intellectual debate without indulging in silly personal slurs?

As I said on one of the Pharyngula threads, I wouldn't care if it turned out that Hitchens is a heroin addict who listens to Barry Manilow records and has sex with a parrot while dressed in a rubber suit. It's his ideas that matter, not his habits.

But what about his ideas? Hitchens has been built up as some kind of hero to the cause of anti-religion. There's been a fair bit of rhetoric about "four musketeers" in that cause - Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and of course Hitchens. Dawkins' site has used this meme, but I wonder how wise it is when some of the muskets are, at times, more like loose cannons.

I love some of what Hitchens delivers - I greatly enjoyed God is Not Great, and he makes some telling points even in the speech that he gave in Wisconsin (from what I've been able to watch so far on YouTube). But as we've also seen recently with Sam Harris, who doesn't even like the words "atheist" and "atheism", the "New Atheists" do not form a philosophical school. The more we see of them, the more we can see that they are very diverse individuals, sharing only a non-belief in deities and a knack for explaining difficult concepts very clearly.

That diversity of clear voices expressing powerful criticism of religion is healthy for our intellectual culture, but I do think that the four musketeers idea is rather lame, and the "New Atheism" is a journalistic tag of limited value: it's more useful if we apply it to the entire publishing phenomenon of recent, high-profile books attacking religion (of which there are now many) than if it is simply shorthand for Dawkins-Dennett-Harris-Hitchens.

Dawkins (along with his friend Dennett) might be safer associating himself with people like Alan Sokal, A.C. Grayling, and Philip Kitcher than with Hitchens and Harris. Never mind that Kitcher himself has been less than tactful in distancing himself from Dawkins! It was always apparent that there's no monolith of unbelief, but it's becoming more evident that Hitchens and Harris, in particular, have distinctive personal agendas and will never subordinate these to any "movement". Nor, of course, should they. They are entitled to say what they really think - just as we are entitled to think (and say) that Hitchens has jumped the shark in his latest comments on Islam.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Blog break

I need to travel interstate for a few days because of some family concerns; I'll resume blogging when I get back.

I'll leave you with this excellent interview by Mitchell Cohen to mull over. Oh, and I must add this great blog post by Brian Leiter.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

New book by John Harris

Here is a surprisingly sympathetic article in The Times about British philosophical bioethicist John Harris, who has a new book out: Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. I say "surprisingly" because Harris takes a very strong pro-enhancement view that is likely to frighten many people.

I'm not going to say much about the book here. I've read it once already, but I need to do so again before I can comment in any cogent way. One problem is that it picks up arguments from previous publications by Harris, some of which were already familiar to me. This is inevitable when a prolific and high-profile working scholar brings out a book every few years, but it can get a bit confusing after a while remembering what he said where. Still, it's helpful to have a lot of the arguments on related topics now consolidated in one place. I am broadly on his side of this debate, of course, and his views in earlier books and other publications have influenced my own approach to bioethics; I'm certainly not batting for the same team as Leon Kass, Michael Sandel, Bill McKibben, George Annas, Jurgen Habermas, and the rest of the bioconservative line-up - all of whom Harris criticises strongly and tellingly. However, I'll wait until I have a chance to give the book a careful second reading before I really try to tease out its strengths and weaknesses.

The main thing to note is that Enhancing Evolution is now out and about, and getting some publicity - and that it is instantly one of the most important contributions to the enhancement debate. Anyone who wants to take part in that debate will need to come to grips with its arguments.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Pharyngula mutating genre meme

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is ...".

Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

*You can leave them exactly as is.

*You can delete any one question.

*You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...:, or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".

*You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...”.

You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the "parent" blog you got them from, e.g. Metamagician and the Hellfire Club to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

-----------------------------------------------------

My parent is: Pharyngula

1. The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is ...

Hmmm, which of my friends should I suck up to this time? I could say The Judas Mandala by Damien Broderick. But Alison Goodman is prettier ... (sorry, Damien).

Singing the Dogstar Blues, by Alison Goodman.

2. The best romantic movie in fictionalised biography is...

Beyond Good and Evil.

3. The best sexy song in rock is ...

"You Can Leave Your Hat On", by Joe Cocker.

4. The best cult novel in American fiction is ...

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein.

I shall attempt to disseminate my seed to:

Science After Sunclipse

Sentient Developments

The Flying Trilobite

The Early Days of a Better Nation

EvolutionBlog

Anyone else who wants to accept my meme can also join in the game.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Fundamentalism

A lot of the debates that I find myself reading in the blogosphere or elsewhere on the net involve somebody accusing somebody else of something called "fundamentalism". This is not a useful way to advance most debates.

What is fundamentalism?

The best definition I can give of fundamentalism is belief in the literal and inerrant truth of the Bible (or, by extension some other holy book, or something that is treated as one).

But that definition is not straightforward. In fact, it's very difficult to nail down in a precise way what a "literal" interpretation of the Bible actually is. The Bible is a work, or rather a literary collection, that is obviously wide open to interpretation, and many passages are not given a literal interpretation by anyone. The doctrines discovered in its pages by real-life Christian fundamentalists - people in the tradition of those who consciously adopted that label for themselves - may well be ahistorical to some extent.

However, we needn't get too deeply into what a rigorous literalism would really be like or whether it is a coherent idea when tested to the limit. It's quite possible to obtain an adequate idea of Christian fundamentalism without any of that. Fundamentalists are, for example, the folks who believe that the Earth is only about six thousand years old or a little bit more with some fudging ... some say more like 10,000 years. They typically believe that something like the myth of Eden and the Fall actually took place 6000-or-whatever-odd years ago, somewhere in the Middle East (and complete with magic trees, rib-woman, and talking snake). They claim that Jesus really was born of a virgin, really did die as a blood sacrifice for our sins, really was resurrected bodily, and really will return to Earth from Heaven in judgment of the living and the dead. A lot of them believe in a doctrine of the Rapture - the saved will be taken up to Heaven when Jesus returns, and the rest of us will be left behind in the resulting destruction and chaos.

Etcetera. You have the idea. Not only is the Bible inerrant; there is a strong tendency to read it, wherever possible, as an accurate and literal account of historical events.

The problems with fundamentalism

One problem with Christian fundamentalism is that it collides with the outcomes of rational inquiry into the mechanisms of the natural world whenever this fails to confirm the "literal" biblical account. Thus, we often see fundamentalists arguing that (for example) radiometric dating is dramatically unreliable, that the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah's flood, that human beings and dinosaurs existed contemporaneously, that Leviathan and Behemoth (in the Book of Job) were in fact dinosaurs of different species, and even that God made billions-of-years old rocks - i.e., rocks already, in some sense, billions of years old when they came into existence less than ten thousand years ago. The madness that some fundamentalists feel obliged to defend seems to know no bounds.

Christian fundamentalists refuse to accommodate scientific findings that contradict their supposedly literal reading of the Bible. Perhaps worse in some ways, they are also unwilling to accommodate modern ideas of morality and justice, and to read biblical moral pronouncements in any cultural context that requires reinterpretation or any understanding more nuanced than the medieval ones.

At this point, we could delve into many interesting issues about how the Bible is best interpreted or understood, whether from a Christian viewpoint or from a more sceptical or uncommitted one. I don't claim to be especially expert on such matters, though of course I'm well aware that there are stong traditions of biblical interpretation that rely on cultural context, symbolic meaning, the reconstruction of original intentions, and so on. There's a wealth of scholarship of various levels of credibility. The main point to establish at this stage, though, is just that there is something - a real social phenomenon - that can be recognised as Christian fundamentalism.

This kind of inflexible, literalist Christianity is not all that common in Australia, thank Zeus and Poseidon, but it is very common indeed in the USA, almost a dominant social and political force. Its essential weakness is its inflexibility: its adherents' inability to depart far from the actual words of ancient texts. This leads true fundamentalists into conflict with knowledge gained through rational inquiry, and also with much secular morality. It can sometimes make them almost impossible to reason with, and sometimes it can lead them to a degree of unscrupulousness in carrying out their deity's plan.

However, not all religious conservatism is truly fundamentalist. For example, conservative Roman Catholicism cannot meaningfully be called "fundamentalist", since it does not rely on the literal inerrancy of a holy book. Yet, it operates with certain traditions, sometimes interpreted with little flexibility, that can bring it, too, into sharp conflict with secular reasoning about morality and justice, and sometimes other things.

Are there fundamentalist atheists? (Not really)

I get annoyed when I see people like Richard Dawkins criticised for being "fundamentalist atheists". This is a misuse of words and only creates confusion. If Dawkins has faults, like everyone else, fundamentalism is not among them: there is no inflexible clinging to the words of a holy book, considered inerrant and interpreted in a literal-minded way. Nor is there anything analogous. Dawkins is willing to follow science where it leads, though like all leading scientists he does have his own opinions on important scientific controversies - opinions that he is willing to defend against rival ones until powerful evidence comes along.

Importantly, the word "fundamentalist" does not mean merely "passionate" or "forthright" or "outspoken", even something like "confident" or "hard-nosed" or "stubborn". Dawkins may be some of those things, but he is not a fundamentalist atheist, and it is difficult to identify any significant public figure who meets such a description. There may (by extension or analogy) be fundamentalist Marxists or fundamentalist Randians: people who cling to the literal words of Karl Marx or Ayn Rand, and who treat those authors' books as if they were inerrant holy texts. However, I cannot think of any significant figure who could meaningfully be described as a "fundamentalist atheist".

But there's something a bit like fundamentalist atheism

I would have left the issue at that a few weeks ago, but I'm becoming concerned that - despite all the above - there is something at least a bit like fundamentalist atheism in the world. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Michel Onfray, Daniel Dennett, and so on are not examples of it, but you can see what I'm referring to if you look further down the food chain.

I do see people - usually pseudonymous - who appear to have swallowed down a quite precise body of inflexible atheistic doctrine, wherever they got it from. Never, their doctrine insists, call yourself "agnostic", or anything else that sounds softer than "atheist"; always accept that the word "atheist" has only one possible meaning (usually, mere lack of belief in any deities ... I'm happy with this definition, but other definitions do exist). Treat all religious folks as liars or fools (of course, some are ... but many are far from it). Don't just satirise religion and (as I like to do) question its right to special respect; feel free to treat even moderate religious folks offensively. Of course, some people will take offense if you condemn or satirise their ideas, but you should go beyond that: make sure you attack them personally if they try to engage with you, even in a reasonable and honest way.

Probably, "fundamentalism" isn't the correct name for this. It's not that these people have a holy book - as far as I know. But the phenomenon is out there, whatever we call it, and it can be ugly to watch.

Forging coalitions

Here's how I see things: strangely enough, genuinely moderate religious people are not my enemies. They are usually good people, they are often on the same political side as me, and they are not stupid or dishonest. They may or may not have a view of the world that I find untenable. Many of them are more like deists or pantheists than believers in any traditional kind of providential theism, which means they have views that I consider a bit more plausible; some are not even deists, in that their "God" is more a metaphor than anything else. They may not agree with me on all moral issues, since they may have absorbed certain traditions, values, and culturally-transmitted intuitions that I treat with suspicion; yet, by and large, they are good people to socialise and work with.

In short, genuinely moderate religious people may make good comrades and allies on many issues. On others, we can agree to disagree with them. They won't think of us as sinners, or imagine that we will burn in hell fire.

A fortiori, there are various kinds of non-religious people who fall short of the most hardline atheism but likewise make good allies. Conversely - and this is important - there are atheists who make lousy allies on many issues. Some are in thrall to what can loosely be called secular religions, such as the cruder kinds of Marxism and Randian Objectivism. I don't feel that I have more in common with them than with moderate, deistically-oriented Christians, for example, or moderate Jews, Muslims, or whatever other brand of religion may be relevant with particular individuals. The religions may be worth attacking, but certainly not these sorts of individuals.

A book such as The God Delusion is of value in offering a perspective to current debates that has been heard all too seldom until recently - that of an individual who argues that religion is false tout court, and should be rejected. That is a legitimate view, and I am prepared to subscribe to it over the long haul. Kudos to Dawkins for breaking the taboo against expressing such a viewpoint. I'm on the record in numerous places defending him and the value of this particular book.

But there are other viewpoints that are also of value in public debate, and we need to be able to form coalitions with people who have a wide range of those viewpoints - from those who might be almost as hard on religion as Dawkins, but have reasons to prefer the word "agnostic" to describe themselves, through to those who are liberal and supportive of secularism, though working and thinking within a religious tradition.

We need to forge political coalitions. We should reserve our right to express our true beliefs and to use such means as humour and satire (I am not in favour of slanting our ideas so as to hide their real implications, and so make them more acceptable to people who don't share them). But if we insist that no one can be a friend or an ally unless she agrees with some precise set of doctrines, then we're not much better than the true fundamentalists whose views we rightly scorn.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Galatea 2.2

My fiction reading for the week was another novel by Richard Powers, this time his mid-90s work Galatea 2.2 - a novel about love, artificial intelligence, and the dark side of the human condition. As the title suggests, it is a modern-day Pygmalion novel: in this case, about training up an artificial neural network, which goes through several upgrades until the final version, christened "Helen" by the first-person narrator.

The narrator, called "Richard Powers" just like his real-world creator, interweaves the story of his own life with that of Helen's creation and training, and "her" aghast response at the everyday horrors of human existence that are gradually unfolded to her when the AI researchers prime her, step by step as she needs it, with information about the natural and social worlds. Powers (the author) appears to have taken to heart Turing's idea that the most promising way to create a real artificial intelligence would be to mould it from a sort of infancy through to adulthood, much as we've always educated and socialised human children. Powers (the narrator) is more naive about these things when a group of AI scientists recruit him to help, but he is definitely a version of the author, slightly younger, equipped with a past that looks all-too-much like the biography of the real-world Powers, and fascinated by his encounter with research on advanced AI.

Though Galatea 2.2 is a kind of science fiction novel, and Powers (author as well as narrator) is well-versed in science, it is more in the Wellsian than the Gernsback tradition, and more socially realist than either. It is focused on the experience of love and how we cope with tragedy and pain. The narrator's back story is one of romantic love and its loss, of living through an aftermath of despair, and learning to love again.

Friday, October 05, 2007

How many of these books have you read?

This meme is doing the rounds at the moment. I found it on John Wilkins' blog.

As far as I can work out, these "books of pretension" are supposed to be books commonly found on people's shelves but left unread.

I've bolded the ones that I've read myself. One is supposed to italicise partly-read books, but that is almost irrelevant since I seldom give up on a book once I begin. Nonetheless, there are a couple. E.g. I doubt that I've read the entirety of The Canterbury Tales, and I must get back to Foucault's Pendulum one day.

There are quite a few here that are on my waiting-to-be-read list, such as Cryptonomicon, which has now been there for a long time - I'll get to it soon. There's an awful lot of classics that I somehow missed on. It really hurts to me to admit some of them, e.g. that I still haven't got around to reading The Satanic Verses. I don't think I've ever actually read A Tale of Two Cities, either, or The Grapes of Wrath, I realised, though I've read enough about them that I kind of thought I had for a second.

Oh well, let the plain-text titles stand as a nagging check-list of books that I must get to.

Anyway, here goes:

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
Catch-22
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Ulysses
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
The Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
Emma
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Middlesex
Quicksilver
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury tales
The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New world
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
Middlemarch
Frankenstein
The Count of Monte Cristo
Dracula
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
1984
Angels & Demons
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Dune
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
Cryptonomicon
Neverwhere
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Dubliners
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Beloved
Slaughterhouse-five
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Lolita
Persuasion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Echo Maker

To my shame, the fiction of Richard Powers was off my radar until recently, but I've just finished Powers' most recent novel, The Echo Maker, which won the 2006 National Book Award, and I'm an instant fan. It's about science, specifically cognitive neurology (one of the main characters is a kind of Oliver Sacks figure), has vividly-realised, involving, and interestingly flawed characters, with some tour-de-force dialogue involving a young man with Capgras syndrome, and contains more than its fair share of page-turning mystery and suspense. I'm going to read some more novels by Powers as soon as I can grab a bit of spare time.

Thanks to my good pal over in Poland, Pawel Frelik, for drawing this book to my attention.