Book Review: The Age of Reason

Book Review: The Age of Reason - Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology by Thomas Paine

While I concern myself with many things (scientific and historical primarily); this [ill tended] web log is dedicated to matters of theism, church/state separation, morality and things related. It is a rare event indeed that one finds a book that touches on so many subjects that I find compelling. For a forum such as this, there would be a number of writings that might be considered ‘required reading’. I have read tomes from Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Stenger. In addition, I have read an increasing number of Christian apologetic works by authors recommended to me (such as C.S. Lewis, Strobel, Aquinas, Geisler/Turek).

One work that has eluded me (until now) is American patriot Thomas Paine’s late-life work The Age of Reason. Paine's story is, to my mind, a rather tragic one. Paine was a patriot and gained great notoriety with the publication of his pamphlet Common Sense in 1776 which was not insignificant in awakening and forming public sentiment in the cause of independence from British rule. He was admired by and corresponded with many of the ‘who’s who’ of our nation’s founding. Moving back to Europe, he later penned The Rights of Man which was critical of monarchies and supported the French Revolution. This, too, was quite influential but it landed him in a French prison. In anticipation of that eventuality and his expected execution, he hastily penned ‘Part I’ of The Age of Reason which he had always planned to write late in life. The Age of Reason is a highly critical deconstruction and condemnation of organized religion. It had long been his intent to write this work but, knowing that he would be roundly criticized for disparagement of Christianity, he waited purposely to make it his swansong. The expectation of beheading seemed to give him a pretty firm date to work with. In the end, he escaped execution and was able to write ‘Part II’ of the book. It will primarily be this second part that I discuss.

First let me note, that Paine was NOT an atheist, but rather a Deist. In ‘Part I’, Paine makes the usual philosophical arguments against theistic belief such as the veracity of revelation, the corruption of the church. These, of course, are common and valid arguments, but it is in ‘Part II’ where Paine really brought something to the table. In ‘Part II’, Paine skillfully and thoroughly used the bible against itself to demonstrate that the claimed authors of the various books could NOT have been authors. Paine, in great detail, dissected and refuted the Old Testament [OT]. I must confess, since most contemporary Christian sects have dismissed the OT as being fables, this section was somewhat like white noise for me. In Paine’s day, though, the OT was still a revered portion of the book that many considered to be the ‘Word of God’.

Paine, using ONLY the Bible as reference, pits each of the books of the New Testament [NT] against themselves and each other. Even today, many believing Christians believe the NT to be the actual, inspired word of God and the be-all end-all in … well … most things of consequence. Paine witheringly shows the gross inconsistencies between the books of the NT and within themselves. Paine went into the effort knowing he would find inconsistencies, but he surprised even himself with just how flawed a document the Bible is.

Examples of what Paine details:

  • - Purported authors speaking of events that transpired after their own death
  • - Proof that some writings had to be CENTURIES removed from the events they describe
  • - Grossly conflicting accounts of the same event.
  • - Major events conspicuous in their absence of some of the books of the NT

The Age of Reason would be a devastating deconstruction of the Bible (and religion) even if it were half its length. I initially picked up the book just as an historical work, but found it to be the most rigorous deconstruction of the bible I had seen. It wouldn’t surprise me that some would scoff at the validity of a 200 year old book…but then again…apologists might not want to bring up the age of their book!

The Age of Reason is a highly recommended read.

President Palin – A Bullet Dodged, and A Party Warped

It seems only sensible to follow up on my last post “President Palin - A Dark Possibility”, which I penned shortly after John McCain announced his announced that Sarah Palin was his selection for Vice President.  It was an unsettling time when her initial popularity put McCain ahead in the polls and there was an actual possibility that we could have and End-Of-Days theologist just one [feeble] heartbeat from the most powerful military machine in history and a whole list of biblical prophesies in need of fulfillment.


Well…the world learned more and more about just how much Sarah Palin has NOT learned in her isolated life and, while still giving the Religious Right a woody, became a boil on the McCain ticket.  It seems generally agreed that Ms. Palin turned what could have been a reasonably competitive campaign into a crushing electoral landslide for Barack Obama.  It had been obvious for some time (after the initial Palin ‘bump’) that Obama was going to walk away with the election.  … and until the recent California wildfires, the media seemed to spend half of their time talking about the marginalized Republican Party and what they would get back in the game.  It almost seems like a sort of ‘Chapter 11’ bankruptcy for the party, but the bankruptcy here was intellectual and ideological instead of monetary.  Their business plan wasn’t working anymore and they need to spend some time restructuring.


I had never affiliated myself with a political party and, to be honest, I always thought it rather silly to be a strict partisan of any flavor.  Still…had I been forced to select a party, I would have identified myself as a Republican because I grew up thinking it was a party of fiscal conservatism…or at least fiscal pragmatism.  Clearly the Republican Party, somewhere along the line, became the party of Religious and Social Conservatism.  This, I think, is not just veering off the path a little bit, but converting the party into something totally foreign to American and Constitutional ideals and bearing little or no resemblance to the party that I grew up with.


I was down at Grant Park on the night of Tuesday November 4th and watched Mr. Obama become President Elect.  It was an emotional time and tears welled on more than one occasion.  It was a new chapter in America.  It is an era that will turn us from the brink of our Supreme Court interpreting our secular constitution through a religious lens.  It is an era where the Republican party can do some soul searching and return to their roots…or so I had hoped.


The media and the talking heads talk about the ‘new faces’ of the Republican party, and they are….Palin, Huckabee, Romney, Gingrich and other religious conservatives!!  What are they thinking?!?!?!  There is still a good deal of time.  Maybe there will be that face that comes out of the crowd (much as Obama did) that can be our next Teddy Roosevelt or Lincoln.  Instead; the talking heads only offer the names of religious ideologues that delivered us the mess that we have right now and want to (in Mike Huckabee’s words) “change the constitution to meet God’s word”.  If the Republican Party were a struggling car company; you can’t get back in control by putting a new grill on the same undesirable car.  The Palins,  Romneys , Huckabees and Gingrichs are just a new grill on a car that people no longer want.


Message to the GOP:  There is still time to learn your lesson.  Dig deep.

President Palin - A Dark Possibility

It could be argued that we stand witness to the most epic of political battles in the recent history of our marvelous republic. Based on television viewership, surging voter registration, and the sheer volume of water cooler and bar stool talk; It seems that many voters feel that this is the most important election in their lifetime.

Both McCain and Obama have done the necessary dirty deed of pandering to the religious right to try to secure that voting bloc. And, yes, I do not think that neither of these intelligent and honorable men has nearly the religious conviction that their rhetoric would have you believe. The unfortunate truth is that, if one wants to serve this country (or state or community), they must feign strong spiritual belief…and both have done so in spades.

McCain raised the ante, however, with the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. It is my sense that her selection was a ‘Hail Mary’ effort to get a leg up on the Obama juggernaut. As a political move, I would characterize it as brilliant and has likely delivered the evangelical vote to McCain signed and sealed.

My problem lies in some cold, hard facts. Social Security actuarial tables indicate that there is about a 15% chance that John McCain will not live through his entire first term. I have also read that there is roughly a 7% chance that Mr. McCain could have a debilitating illness or injury (not sure of the veracity of that number, but it sounds reasonable). This puts us at a 1 in 5 chance that we are actually electing a President Palin…not even good odds for Russian Roulette! With those kinds of odds, we need to ask ourselves is Ms. Palin fit to be President Palin? By any reasonable standard, NO!

In Palin, we have someone who pretty obviously believes our actions in the middle-east are God’s will. In my estimation, there is nothing so dangerous as to have public policy defined by supernatural worldviews. Palin’s religious beliefs are so deep that she believes her motives to be unassailable…just like al Quaeda and the Taliban. If Palin turns this into a religious war, or even gives that impression (which she already has), we will make the world a far more dangerous place and there cannot be any winners…just divisions and conflict and death.

The original colonies of our country’s fledgling days became mini theocracies. It is not insignificant that our founder’s very first amendment to our constitution was to separate religion from government and address the clear dysfunction that ensues when they merge. Governor Palin, while very possibly an otherwise capable person, must not place her religious convictions on the world stage; and we cannot risk the possibility of there being a President Palin.

The Origin of Morality

In theistic / non-theistic debates, the short list of contentious topics invariably includes the issue of morality. More specifically, how does the non-believer know what is right and wrong without the edicts from the supernatural? Many enlightened theists acknowledge that [their particular] religion is not the sole arbiter of morality. Other, less enlightened, theists proclaim that non-believers, by definition, are variously amoral, immoral, degenerate or evil. In a recent discussion that on-line discussion, a newspaper letter writer stated (as though factual) that “atheists deny God to justify their degenerate lifestyle”. I must say that I cannot resist confronting the rantings of a bigoted simpleton so I jumped into the conversation. You can read it here. The letter writer was, pretty much, universally condemned, but there were those that thought the letter writer “was hinting at” a bigger, important question. If you read his original comments; it is clear that he was not asking questions, but rather condemning and demonizing…all with no evidence.

That conversation seemed to winnow itself down to two or three contributors, so I suggested that we move the conversation here. The ‘Cliff’s Notes’ of my part in that conversation is a follows:

My contention is that the core impulses that our advanced brain interprets as ethics and morality are evolutionary traits. To my mind, the concept of “The Golden Rule” or “Do unto others …” is the distillation of [what is known as] reciprocal altruism. I have the great fortune to have a very good body of empirical knowledge on the matter to back up my contention that morality (or at least proto-morality) exists in other higher species and not only pre-dates Christianity, but predates our species. In fact, every species tested for altruistic traits or empathetic behavior exhibited such traits.

Such a contention is in stark conflict with theistic claims that human-kind was created uniquely and separately from other animal species, created in God’s image and imbued with special privileges, responsibilities, and concepts of right and wrong. (Just calling the human species an ‘animal’ is offensive to some). I don’t have a problem with the last concept…that we, possibly uniquely, know the ethereal philosophical concepts of right and wrong, but the evidence shows that other species also know right and wrong even if those other species don’t understand the concepts. Our mutated larger brain allows us the ponder such abstract concepts to, apparently, the exclusion of all others.

Nicholas Wade (a science reporter for the New York Times) had a nice distillation of some of the empirical evidence that we have. He writes:

“Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.”

These are just two examples of many that show actions that benefit others with no direct benefit to the actor. It is hard to take those types of behaviors and paint them with something that does NOT include core components of (what humans would call) ethics, morality, and empathy.

In these discussions, I do NOT take the stance that “Morality IS an evolutionary trait and you are stupid to think otherwise”. My stance is that the theory that morality is an evolved trait makes sense and has broad empirical evidence that supports it. I only feel this is worthwhile to discuss because there are some that will dismiss the evidence that there is (if they know about it) and claim that their particular deity is responsible for right and wrong. This, in itself, is perfectly within the rights of any person to believe. The rub comes when, by extension of their theistic claim of ownership of morality, the theist demonizes non-believers by claiming that, by denial of their religious creed, the non-believer is (as I said before) variously amoral, immoral, degenerate or evil. This stance victimizes a segment of society that is demonstrably as moral and ethical (sometimes more so) based on NO EVIDENCE BEYOND A BRONZE-AGE TEXT. This latter position, I consider to be immoral in itself. I operate on this simple code: "If there is a victim to my actions, then it is probably wrong". Demonizing a person or a group without warrant creates a victim, hence it is wrong.

Book Review: “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Rights Even When You’re Not” by Robert A. Burton, M.D.

Book Review: “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Rights Even When You’re Not” by Robert A. Burton, M.D.

In my theistic discussions; I am often fascinated (stymied) at the level of certainty that some theists have in the validity of their religious narrative…often in the face of clear contradictory empirical evidence. Over the years, I have taken a keen interest in neurology and how the brain works; enough so that I have a passing regret for not having gone into neurology instead of engineering (it’s never too late, right?). Over these years, I have amassed a mental library of various illustrations that show how malleable and unreliable the mind (as manifested in the brain) can be. Still; the inexplicable certainty that some possess was never addressed directly in my readings. Hence, when I saw a brief blurb about the book “On Being Certain”, I immediately went and bought a copy (my library had ordered it, but they did not yet have it ready for lending).

Dr. Burton’s sole focus of “On Being Certain” is that sense of certainty that we all recognize. He provides evidence that the feeling (or ‘emotion’ more accurately) is a ‘primary emotion’ and refers to it as the “feeling of knowing” (he did not shorten it to an acronym, I think, because of the obvious, awkward acronym that would result).

Burton cites the rapidly accumulating knowledge that we have with regard to brain function and perception to good end. The less diligent reader, though, might not find the reading deeply satisfying as we cannot, based on our current knowledge, fully answer specific questions (i.e. why do we create gods to address the unknown). Still, the empirical evidence cited is often clearly in conflict with some common presumptions. This, in my mind, is the true purpose of the empirical method. While we may be unable to answer a specific, granular question on a topic, we can effectively eliminate the wrong answers…and Burton’s book does go a long way in eliminating some of those wrong answers (at least for those open to empirical evidence).

One interesting point Burton makes is there are some emotions that we can induce through direct electrical stimulation of very specific regions of the brain. One example is the “sense of another presence” (i.e. that there is someone or something nearby). Another example is the disruption/manipulation of the “sense of self” where we can feel separate from our bodies (floating) or feel “at one” with our surroundings. The point of his book, of course, is that “feeling of knowing” which can be elicited through electrical stimulation. Burton calls these “primary emotions” and are localized to very specific areas of the brain. On the other hand, we have no evidence of being able to similarly induce higher order emotions such as the “sense of irony”. Burton effectively demonstrates how these primary emotions (particularly the “feeling of knowing”) do not necessarily reliably correlate with facts or reality.

Reading the book, while mentally critiquing it, is a bit of a mobius-like conundrum. You are simultaneously judging and amassing knowledge, while you are reading about how your judgment and knowledge is not reliable. WHEW! I will confess; I feel that Burton, on one or two occasions, overstepped the implications of bits of evidence. In his defense, the book was written for a more general audience and some background that might have been omitted might justify his positions. In all, the book offers some fascinating insights as to how our brains and minds work and an astute reader can learn much from it.

Pascal's Wager [reprise]

In another conversation with one of my deist friends, the topic of Pascal’s Wager came up again. This argument in favor of theism has been refuted innumerable times but, in my experience, an important aspect of its failure is too seldom elucidated…hence my being compelled to write some more on Mr. Pascal.

In the way of background (for those of you that are new to theistic debates), Blaise Pascal (the brilliant 17th century mathematician, physicist and philosopher) offered the following in support of believing in the God of Abraham:

It is better to believe in God and be wrong, than to NOT believe in God and be wrong.

This is based on the Christian religious narrative that those who deny the existence of God will be out of favor with the Supreme Being and be cast down into hell with its associated burning sulfur lakes and gnashing of teeth. [It should be noted that Mr. Pascal didn’t really buy into the validity of his argument as much as the theists who bring it out in their defense.]

The argument has been refuted by others far more scholarly than me, but I wish to point out (what are to me) the two most cogent failures of Pascal’s Wager.

Belief is not a conscious choice. The idea that one can, as an act of will, just decide to believe something is ludicrous. In my discussion at a local watering hole, I pointed to the paper coasters at the corner of the bar where we were seated and asked “Is there any way that you can make yourself believe, as an act of will, make yourself believe that those coasters are actually woven from hair shaved from the heads of fairies?” We had some fun with the fact that he hadn’t been drinking long enough so say so, but the rhetorical question has an obvious answer. One cannot, as a matter of will, believe something without some body of evidence to support it. When the theist brings out Pascal’s Wager to a non-believer and asks us to believe for no other reason than the potential upside, they might as well ask us to pass a live walrus out our rectum.

The false assumption that there is no cost to belief. What is assumed when offering Pascal’s Wager as an argument is that there is absolutely no cost that comes with theistic belief. This, in my experience, is the aspect that receives too little attention when refuting the argument. The underlying premise is that you have the possibility of “eternal reward” with belief in God versus “eternal punishment” without that belief and that even the slightest chance of its truth makes it a good bet.

This fails because there is, indeed, a cost to belief. On the surface, one could readily identify myriad personal costs to belief. These could be things like not being able to sleep in on your holy day, limitation on foods that you might otherwise enjoy, special requirements for clothing and garments. Still these are personal costs that involve no victim (other than the believer who has willingly decided to believe). These costs (and they are costs) could be perfectly justifiable to the believer so the argument hasn’t failed yet. Where the argument fails is when that conscious belief involves others as victims. Depending on what theistic narrative you decide to believe, there ARE victims. Let’s use Catholicism and homosexuality as an example (being raised Catholic it is low hanging fruit for me). Part of the official narrative of the Catholic Church is that homosexuality is an evil choice and thereby demonizes all homosexuals. By electing to believe in this particular narrative, the participant has willingly demonized a segment of society…they have willingly decided to hate somebody because they were told to do so. That is just one example of many. There is the cost of subjugation of women; the cost of stifling medical research and education; etc. etc. etc..

Yes there is a cost to belief (depending on what dogma you hang your hat on). There is a cost to society and it is not insignificant. If your belief makes a victim out of others, then it is immoral…plain and simple.