Monthly Archives: December 2010

2010 in books

So, as we’re coming to the end of the year, here is a list of the book I’ve read, organised by approximate category. Some may overlap, so I’ve tried to fit them where they seem most appropriate. You can see some book reviews for the ones I’ve read later on in the year. I don’t write reviews for anything where the time gap between reading the book and writing the review is more than 3 weeks.

Science
1. The Strangest Man – Graham Farmelo
2. Six Easy Pieces – Richard Feynman
3. Six Not So Easy Pieces – Richard Feynman
4. The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow
5. The Drunkard’s Walk – Leonard Mlodinow
6. The Character of Physical Law – Richard Feynman
7. Alex’s Adventures in Numberland – Alex Bellos
8. The Trouble With Physics – Lee Smolin
9. The Constants of Nature – John Barrow
10. Symmetry – Marcus du Sautoy
11. The Num8r My5teries – Marcus du Sautoy

Christianity
1. God on Mute – Pete Greig
2. Knowing God – J.I. Packer
3. Mere Theology – Alister McGrath
4. The Christian Vision of God – Alister McGrath
5. The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
6. The Future of Atheism – Daniel Dennett, Alister McGrath et al
7. There is a God – Antony Flew
8. Velvet Elvis – Rob Bell
9. Simply Christian – Tom Wright
10. Punk Monk – Andy Freeman & Pete Greig
11. Belief –an anthology of writings compiled by Francis Collins
12. What’s So Amazing About Grace – Philip Yancey
13. The Pursuit of God – A.W. Tozer

Fiction
1. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman
2. The Subtle Knife – Philip Pullman
3. The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman
4. The Trial – Franz Kafka
5. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
6. Dracula – Bram Stoker
7. The Mayor of Casterbridge – Thomas Hardy
8. The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis
9. So You Don’t Want to go to Church Anymore – Wayne Jacobsen & Dave Coleman
10. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
11. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
12. Wessex Tales – Thomas Hardy
13. The Unbearable lightness of being – Milan Kundera

Books started but not yet finished
The Resurrection of the Son of God – Tom Wright
Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The nature and origin of morality – Part 3: Can we rule God out?

Now that we have established that christians do not have a monopoly on morality, can we rule God out of morality? In other words, are all appeals to God as the source of morality necessarily invalid? If the answer to that is yes, then there has to be an alternative source for morality, and I will aim to have a brief look at some of the alternative models proposed.

One of the answers that very quickly gets banded about is evolution. The premise goes something like this: patterns of behaviour, which we now interpret as being moral, developed in early society and helped the group to survive. In evolutionary terms, survival is everything. This pattern of behaviour is thus reinforced and an air of virtue surrounds this behaviour.

This is very well reasoned, and may indeed be the methodology by how morality developed. However, it is not without flaws. The first one is that there is no evidence for it. As pointed out in the introduction, the field of evolutionary psychology is based on supposition and peripheral experimentation. We have no way of determining the psychological make-up of our ancestors as it doesn’t leave any physical trace for us to examine. All we have to go on are ourselves and ancient writings, where thoughts are recorded. But for anything before the rise of language, we are at impasse where the only honest response can be to say “we don’t know,” no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

One point that I have often heard from atheists is that morality pre-dates religion. Now I have already expressed my dissatisfaction with the term religion on part 1 of this series. I don’t actually disagree with the point. What I disagree with is the logical fallacy that this is any way invalidates religion, in particular christianity. I have frequently read that christianity was ‘invented’ around 2,000 years ago and clearly the earth and human civilisation is an awful lot older than that. But this premise completely misses out what christianity is: fulfilled Judaism. The core of the Old Testament is forward-looking, telling of the nature of humanity and the need for salvation, with a host of characters full of just about every combination of vice and virtue you could think of. In Jesus, we have the focal point unto which the entire Old Testament looked, and to whom we now look back upon from a New Testament perspective. So, to simplify the situation somewhat, christianity spotted the Messiah when he came, whereas modern Jews are still waiting. I know that’s a very rough view, and I hope you haven’t been offended by it. To do the subject full justice would require the writing of several books, which I don’t have the time for here. So to say that morality pre-dates christianity (as the latter stands in its current form) is a bit of a tautology; it tells us nothing more interesting than saying my father is older than I am.

So the question really moves to whether morality pre-dates Judaism. Now I will be looking at some aspects of this in more detail in part 4, so I apologise in advance if you are reading this and feel there are some gaping holes; I hope to fill them in later. The best contemporary history we have available to us at present would point to Abraham being the father of Judaism and christianity (as well as Islam, though I haven’t time here to explain why I believe Islam to be skewing of truth rather than a continuation of it). So did Abraham invent Judaism? There is no indication that he invented anything. He was chosen by God to have a relationship with God.

Here, we come to the crux of reductionism. By its very nature, it denies existence in the Platonic sense. So the fact that mankind may have developed morals and come, via a process of trial and error, to a relatively common consensus on what is or is not moral, has nothing to say on whether there is such a thing as an objective morality. Here, if not already, I betray myself as not being particularly relativist. I will come back to this point in the next part.

So my point is this: the fact that morality predates religion does not invalidate religion. People were using the laws of physics long before anyone wrote down their equations. If morality were the endpoint of religion, and here I have in mind christianity in particular, then it would be redundant. However, since the heart of the gospel lies some way off to the left, then a morality is a background against which the christian story of human history is played out.

So this shows why one of the reasons given for ‘ruling God out’ is not, in my opinion, logically sound. But I don’t want to leave it there, simply as negating a negative point. I would like to try and be a little more positive in my assertions.

Now here I am a little short of resources as I had hoped to include some quotations from two very good apologists on this subject: C.S. Lewis and Francis Collins, from their respective books, Mere Christianity and The Language of God. Unfortunately, I’ve lent these both out and so don’t have them to hand to flick through. If I remember correctly (and I am aware my memory may fail me slightly) one of the key points that Francis Collins uses, which he borrowed from Lewis, is the Moral Law is evidence for the existence of God. Evidence it may be, but it certainly isn’t proof (for a longer discussion on my views on the difference between evidence and proof, please see this). The argument is a sort of moral teleology. I would highly recommend you read these two books (both of which are quite short) to understand it better than I can summarise in a short space here.

But since the Moral Law as an arrow pointing towards God is not clear-cut proof, the question in the title still remains unanswered. To my mind, the matter comes down to one of consistency. I.e. can a comprehensive system of morals be formed without reference to God? In the previous part of this series, I discussed the possibility of an individual being moral without recourse to God. However, this is quite a different question to that of a common morality upon which all can agree. I’d like to draw an analogy, which will lead onto the next part. It is that of a national constitution. Now here in Britain, the constitution is unwritten; it is a matter more of collective understanding and a knowledge of history and tradition. In the US, it was codified. Now in Britain, if a political development is unconstitutional then it can be seen to be so simply through common sense. But in the US, the written nature has caused no ends of trouble, to the extent that people (who are appointed by the president) have the job of interpreting the written constitution. This has shown that when you have something codified, that it is open to misinterpretation and wilful misunderstanding to suit a political motivation.

Why I introduce this is to point out the dangers of a written law. When you take something that is fundamentally ethereal and reliant on common sense, it is a mistake to try and pin it down. In order for something to be well understood, it need not be well-defined. I know some people won’t agree with me there, but is a truth I have discovered from experience of trying to define various things and getting caught up in all sorts of logical knots, when a better way of thinking about things is to ‘get the gist.’ Of course, this doesn’t work for everything and is certainly not an approach I would advocate for anything falling within the scope of naturalism. But we can see it in tax law, where you get loopholes open to tax avoidance, in the controversy over interpretations of the offside rule in football.

So we can now finally tackle the second main objection to having a morality derived from God. That is, that a christian understanding of morality only comes about from an unthinking, cycloptic interpretation of the Bible. Now I could spend a very long time picking apart various straw men that I have heard over the years about how christianity suppresses the individual, or discourages independent thinking, though that’s a separate piece in and of itself. For now, it is not unreasonable to dismiss this view as ill-informed and uninformative.

There is good reason for the books of the Bible being written in the various styles as they are. There is a long history of hermeneutics within christianity, far longer than ideas of biblical literalism. There is great mixture of history, apologetics, wisdom, poetry, prophecy, etc. One thing it is not, is a step by step guide of systematic theology. If christianity were a set of moral rules and prohibitions to be obeyed, then a systematic theology may have been the best way forward.

So what is my conclusion? I think it is perfectly possible to develop a consistent morality yourself, without reference to God. However, morality with reference to God is also consistent. So to rule that morality is necessarily atheistic is premature. The pitfalls come when you try and codify morality. The Bible is a great guide to morality, though admittedly mainly through negation. For a christian, to live a moral life is not the end goal. The end goal is to enter a restored relationship with God. It is then from this restored relationship that a love-filled and love-fuelled life follow, and the desire to please God leads to the living of a moral life. Now my atheist friends probably won’t agree with me on that, but so be it.

We cannot accurately trace at what stage in human evolution the notion of morality first cropped up, we can only look at the way we are now. The argument that morality starts with God, as something inbuilt into humanity, certainly helps our understanding of why so many aspects of morality would appear to be common throughout humanity. The case is not watertight, but as yet I have not seen either evidence or a line of reasoning that necessitates the ruling God out of discussions on morality. At best, there can be doubts cast on this, for the usual reason of the never-answered (at least satisfactorily and conclusively) question of the existence of God. Though as I have said before, as foundational as this question is, it’s not a helpful starting point; no more than trying to deflect any attempts at mathematics before you have adequately defined what a number is.

Book Review: Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy

This collection of short stories is by no means Hardy’s best work, but it is nonetheless a worthwhile read. I won’t review each an every story here, but I will bring your attention to what I believe are the two best. They are The Three Strangers and The Distracted Preacher, which bookend the collection of tales.

The Three Strangers is an oddly comic tale, quite uncharacteristic from some of Hardy’s more fatalistic tragedies. It is a well-constructed tale, although the ‘twist’ is rather obvious. But that does not diminish from my enjoyment of the story.

The Distracted Preacher is far and away the best story of the lot. It is very much in the mould of Hardy’s more famous novels, where love is thwarted by circumstances and by social and moral standards that must be seen to be maintained. The setting is reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, though it has to be noted that Hardy’s tale was written several decades earlier, raising the interesting question as to whether or not Jamaica Inn was influenced by The Distracted Preacher.

The rest of the stories are OK, but to me, they didn’t really stand out and I was left with a feeling of just plain indifference towards them. They weren’t especially bad, but they weren’t especially good either; certainly not compared to the two highlighted tales here or to Hardy’s more famous novels.

In conclusion, I would recommend this, though not as a book to read cover to cover. Rather, it is better to take each story individually and not start one as soon as you have finished another.

Book Review: The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer

This book came to me as a recommended follow to up to J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. The first thing you will notice about this book is that it is extremely short. However, don’t let that deceive you; it is very rich and almost paragraph gives food for thought.

Reading the biographical details of Tozer’s life could lead you towards thinking he had abandoned sound theology for wishful mysticism. There are some traces in the book that caused me to raise my eyebrow where Tozer seemed to advocate an experientialist approach to theology, rather than sola scriptura. However, he states at the start that all experience has to be founded on sound theology. In this respect, it is very much a case for those looking for “solid food” that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 3. As such, I would not recommend this to a new christian or to someone who is investigating christianity, as there is much foundational knowledge which is assumed throughout. Were someone to start with Tozer, it would be very easy to get the wrong end of the stick.

But with that cautionary word out of the way, I have to say that this was a joy to read. Clearly written from a passionate heart, Tozer shows us a glimpse of what it means to move from merely knowing about God, to knowing God himself. One of my habits that gets me funny looks from fellow commuters on the train is my habit of underlining quotes in various books. Usually, this is quite rarefied, but in this instance it was more practical to keep my pen in my hand as I was reading than to keep putting it away and bring it back out again.

There is one genuine flaw in it, I believe. In a few instances dotted throughout the book, Tozer seems to adopt a slightly anti-intellectual and anti-science viewpoint, indicating that they are incompatible with christian belief. However, as a christian with a scientific background, I cannot agree with this worldview. A true understanding the power of science can only obtained when you understand its limitations. In my opinion, since God is outside of nature, no naturalistic outlook can ever lead to a complete understanding of God; science is the exploration of creation, working out how God put the cosmos together and how it works. So it is not a case that science is anti-christian, but rather that scientific methodology is (to borrow an analogy from N.T. Wright) like shooting arrows at the sun: it can take aim at God, but it will never hit.

This is a serious book for serious people. It is certainly one that I will be coming back to in the future, and would recommend for anyone wanting a guide in helping them get closer to God.

The nature and origin of morality – Part 2: Can christians claim a monopoly on morality?

In amongst frequent ‘discussions’ between christians and atheists are two claims. From the christians, there is the claim that morality can only be derived from God. From the atheists there is the ruling out of God as a possible reason. The latter of these two will be the subject of part 3, so in this part we will look solely at the first claim.

It isn’t hard to see how a claim of exclusive ownership could be seen to be antagonistic or arrogant, particularly when morality is widely seen to be such a desirable virtue. By implication, those who are not christians lack morality. Moreover, I have heard accusations made by christians that any morality shown by non-christians is fake. In my view, such accusations are foundless, ungracious and unhelpful.

Let us assume for a while that the proposition is true and see where that would lead. If christianity does have a monopoly on morality, where does that leave everyone else? Are they incapable of moral behaviour? Well, a quick look around at society suggest not. In fact, with a proposition of this nature, it can be disproved by a simple counter-example.

Here, I am personally presented with a problem as it would require me to have an intimate knowledge of an individual and perfect judgement on my part, neither of which I posses. So in the absence of evidence, we must instead resort to reason; being careful to discern between that which is reasonable and that which is truth, since not everything that is reasonable is necessarily true. So for my counter-example, I shall take the idea of financial giving to charity. While people may have a variety of reasons for giving to charity, I find it hard to think of a set of circumstances whereby every individual giving is entirely non-moral. Even if it is done for some selfish reason, for example, gaining a tax break, then there are other ways of obtaining an equivalent tax break without benefiting others (e.g. paying into a personal pension). So is this sufficient? It’s by no means a water-tight argument, but I don’t think it would take too much work by a better person than I to tidy it up a bit.

But we can’t leave it there. What we need to do for a more complete view is see why this view was adopted in the first place. What are its origins and what does that mean for the remainder of moral theology?

The first thing to say about this is that moral behaviour is not really at the heart of the gospel. If it were, then for a person to live morally would be all that is required. Anyone who preaches this is has got the wrong end of the stick. One of the main reasons people choose to reject christianity (and they get very tetchy when you point this out to them) is that it has some very uncomfortable home truths to acknowledge, which people don’t want to believe because if they did, it would require action on their part to change some aspects of their worldview. If christians preach a gospel purely of a loving God, then it is incomplete. If we preach condemnation, then it is incomplete. If we preach a gospel of unfettered blessing, then it is incomplete.

You can scan the scripture as much as you like, but you will struggle to find much that defines moral behaviour in a positive way. Usually, it is defined by what it is not. In that respect, the Bible says far more about what is immoral rather than what is moral. I think there is good reason for that. Moral behaviour is the human norm. It is something which is inbuilt in us, and which we are designed to do. Think of it a little like civil law. Civil law does not tell people how to live; it tells us what the exceptions are which are not acceptable in society. I will expand on this in a later part, but for now what I want to say is this: that which is immoral is a tiny part of human behaviour. We are free to live how we want, but we cannot absolute freedom for that would allow us to infringe on the freedom of others. So morality is best defined by negation, while all else is moral.

You may think I have just contradicted myself. In an earlier part, I stated that it is human nature to sin while above I have said that moral behaviour is the norm. I don’t consider these to be contradictory, and I will now state why. By stating that it is human nature to sin does not mean that we are compelled to sin all the time. Depending on our own personal foibles and weaknesses, we will each have a tendency to fall into one sin or another from time to time or, more probably, on a regular basis. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t moral most of the time. The best analogy I can think of is the colouration of a cheetah. It is mostly a sort of yellow-ish colour, yet it has spots. To have one without the other would make it appear very unusual and you would be right to question whether it was really a cheetah at all. So it is with the background of human morality blemished by our nature to sin.

If you consider morality as ‘doing the best for other people’ then you are essentially a humanist. Now I am quite reluctant to describe myself as a humanist because it has atheist overtones. In other words, if you look at the British Humanist Association (BHA), you will find a lot of speakers and writers there speaking and writing not about humanism, but on atheism, or at least anti-theism. The core of humanism is about valuing the human and ensuring that ensuring that no one is unfairly prejudiced against. In this respect, the heart of humanism can be summed up like this:

“Love your neighbour as yourself.”

However, I doubt if the BHA will ever publish that as their raison d’etre, without including some note of irony or sarcasm.

So what is the conclusion? I believe that moral behaviour is the human norm. As such, christians cannot claim any sort of special status in moral discussions, and certainly any claims to hold the moral high ground is an arrogant stance which will more than likely be the precursor of a terrible pratfall. Of course, I acknowledge that is merely my own view which may well be wrong, and would welcome alternative views or suggested further reading.

Book Review: The Num8er My5teries by Marcus du Sautoy

It’s a bit hard to review this book without having in mind Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, published in the same year. Both books cover similar ground, although the approaches differ greatly. Whereas Alex Bellos travelled and spoke to various people who had a particular passion for certain aspects of mathematics or numbers, du Sautoy’s book has the distinct feeling to it that he just sat down and wrote most of it straight out of what was in his own head. The ending of the book somewhat confirms this, as he states the book came out of his giving the Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 2006, and a few other projects he had previously worked on.

The book is broken down very simply into just 5 chapters, each with a basic premise to be looked at. But here, du Sautoy’s passion for mathematics breaks through and he veers wildly off course and looks down a few sidestreets along the way. So if you pick a point about three-quarters of the way through each chapter, whatever is being discussed may not seem to have an immediate connection to what the chapter started out talking about. But this is not a criticism; merely a point of observation. It may not be to some people’s liking, though I think it adds to the charm of the book.

Consistent with the philosophy of most mathematicians, du Sautoy believes that the joy in maths is to be found in doing it for oneself, not merely in the exposition of another. To this end, there are consistent puzzles inserted throughout the book for the reader to follow up on. So the fact that it doesn’t take long to read cover to cover (I did it in 4 days) belies the depth of material that the pages didn’t have room for and are followed up online. The book does get gradually more and more technical, which may put off some readers. Towards the end, I had to pull out a pen and some paper to follow a few of the steps.

Overall, it’s written in a really down-to-earth manner with du Sautoy’s enthusiasm evident on almost every single page, especially those page numbers which are prime numbers which he conveniently instructed the printers to make bold! I would recommend this for anyone interested in mathematics, though I disagree with the age ranged suggested (1-101, even if he did mean it in binary!). I think it should fairly accessible to an average 10 year old or a smart 8 year old, but with plenty to interest adult readers as well.