The Best Books I Read in the 2010s

Here are my favorite books from the last decade. They are mostly academic scholarly works. I didn’t read as much fiction as I would have liked.

1. The History of Jihad, Robert Spencer, 2018. This book is the first of its kind and easily wins the top slot. Plenty of such comprehensive treatments have been written for the Christian crusades, but none that cover the Islamic jihad. Spencer starts with Muhammad, the warlord exemplar, and proceeds through every century since the seventh, in every theater of the globe, showing that holy war has always been an essential element of Islam. He relies on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience Islamic holy war throughout history. He even covers the jihads against in India against the Hindus, which is hard information to come by. Jihadists have always been candid about their religious motives — it is now, and has always been, a Muslim’s holy duty to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islamic law, regardless of how many Muslims actually take up that imperative — but people in the 21st century have denied this and grasped at every wrong explanation. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty, and the history presented in the book speaks for itself. Jihad isn’t “just” terrorism in any case. It is legitimized terrorism backed by core Islamic teachings. It’s to Islam as the Passover is to Judaism, and as the Eucharist is to Christianity, and as meditation is to Buddhism. The History of Jihad is a first-rate guide to a massively misunderstood phenomenon that would be quite easy to understand if the implications weren’t so unpleasant.

2. Constructing Jesus, Dale Allison, 2010. The culmination of Allison’s trilogy (begun in Millenarian Prophet, 1998, and continued in Resurrecting Jesus, 2005) keeps Jesus grounded in delusions of grandeur, millennial dreams, and heavenly alter-egos. Same as before, we see that Jesus’ apocalyptic language, about which he was wrong, was intended literally, and that he was naturally inconsistent about the things he preached. Even the best theologians and most charismatic leaders contradict themselves, and Jesus would have been no different. As egocentric as it seems to us, Jesus had exalted thoughts about himself and he embraced martyrdom. But by far the most intriguing contribution of Constructing Jesus comes in the author’s solution to the Son of Man enigma. Allison argues that Jesus believed the Son of Man to be an angelic figure: his own heavenly twin or Doppelganger, with whom he was one, or would soon become one. Not only is there precedent for celestial doubles and heavenly alter-egos, this would resolve long standing puzzles. For example, if Jesus and the Son of Man were two yet one, it would explain both the earthly human sayings and the heavenly angelic ones; and if Jesus believed he had a heavenly counterpart, then there is no mystery in the fact that he imagined himself coming on the clouds of heaven while having nothing to say about being removed from earth, and raised to heaven, before that could possibly occur; he was already up there; and much more. This book was a good start to the new decade, pounding the final nail in the coffin of Jesus-Seminar minimalism, so that Jesus studies could move forward.

3. Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland, 2014. This book inspired me to write my own presidential series. Most rankings of the U.S. presidents are superficial, praising executives who have effective management styles and strong charisma, regardless of how good or bad their actual policies were. Eland ignores those elements and slaughters sacred cows: FDR was one of the worst presidents, not the best; Warren Harding was one of the best, not the worst. Eland’s criteria are simple. He bases his rankings on the way a president’s policies promoted three things: peace, prosperity and liberty. When you get down to it, those are what most Americans want. Eland is a hard-core libertarian, however, and so I don’t always agree with what he sees as best serving those three causes. He correctly ranks Woodrow Wilson as the worst president of all time, but then astonishingly places Harry Truman as the second worst, as if Truman were a fulfillment of the Wilsonian dream. He rightly elevates John Tyler and Rutherford Hayes to Mount Rushmore, but also includes Martin Van Buren and Grover Cleveland in that honor, where I think those latter two were very poor executives. He skewers George W. Bush and Barack Obama for being basically the same president, and I certainly agree with that. Eland is no respecter of persons or parties. If you want a book that values presidents who were actually good for the American people, then get Recarving Rushmore. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized, or who had mesmerizing charisma and effective management styles, then get any of the mainstream rankings that waste space on the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

marginal4. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier, 2016. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four, only four, with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. As for the most popular and cherished Good Samaritan, Meier shows it to be almost certainly a creation of Luke. The dominant scholarly view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. That’s an ironical conclusion in a work that relies on the classic criteria to get at what Jesus really said and did: this fifth volume of A Marginal Jew is all about uncertainty. Full review here.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final5. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera, 2016. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

6. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler, 2011. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force hard questions about our common humanity, and Esler’s analysis cuts like a laser as always.

7. Thomas and the Gospels, Mark Goodacre, 2012. A sort-of sequel to the author’s Case Against Q, putting to bed scholarly mirages, in this case showing that the gospel of Thomas is not independent but reinterprets synoptic sayings. Thomas’s rearrangement of those sayings is no more surprising than Luke’s rearrangment of Matthew which befuddles Q-advocates. Against scholars who demand unreasonable amounts of verbatim agreement to prove dependency, Goodacre invokes the “plagiarist’s charter”, pointing out that this burden of proof would excuse a lot of unethical behavior. In my view, Goodacre establishes Thomas’ dependence beyond a reasonable doubt. That Thomas knew both Matthew and Luke is fairly easy to see, when you see it outlined for you. Goodacre has cheekily called himself the spoilsport of New Testament studies, and of course we need more spoilsports and killjoys to keep us honest. It would be admittedly nice if Q existed and Thomas carried more “original authority” than the canonical gospels, but history is often more boring than that. I think there’s a tendency to expect too much out of historical criticism, that our biblical experts can somehow unlock arsenals that will arm us against the orthodox and open progressive paradigms. Goodacre’s book is a model analysis of the relationship between Thomas and the snyoptics, indeed the best there is on the subject.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari, 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed. It’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using. I have no illusions this book will result in headway against the American drug war, but I can keep hoping.

9. Free Speech on Campus, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, 2017. There is a certain adage this book seems built around: “Prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” It sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — an embarrassing repudiation of what academia has always stood for. Students are supposed to be stung, disturbed, upset, and thus provoked to reassess their current beliefs — and change the ones they cannot defend. And as the authors of this book make clear, those offensive ideas must include even hate speech. It’s illegal for public universities to ban hate speech, and private colleges should follow suit on this. The problem with “hate speech” is that it’s a catch-all label for shutting down unpopular views that aren’t hateful at all, like the toxic nature of Islam, theories of psychobiology, etc. Academic inquiry doesn’t care about student feelings, nor should it. Free Speech on Campus is the book to help make great thinkers again, indeed to help prepare students for the road, rather than the road for them. I wish it were required reading of every college freshman.

disciples prayer10. The Disciples’ Prayer, Jeffrey Gibson, 2015. Those who like the “Lord’s Prayer” should make this book required reading. The “Disciples’ Prayer”, properly called, had little to do with what Christians today pray on their knees. As Gibson argues, Jesus’ disciples operated out of an austere remnant theology, and the prayer was taught to them to secure them as the faithful elect, and to keep them from apostasy. It doesn’t pray future blessings down into the now, but rather wards against evil by keeping people constrained under hard demands — loving enemies; shunning families; rejecting violence; inviting martyrdom. Gibson refutes apocalyptic readings of the prayer, but if you believe Jesus was an apocalyptic (as I do), his thesis still holds. For if Jesus believed the world was about to end, then he would have insisted on intense commitment and unconditioned loyalty in preparation, just as Gibson argues that the prayer does. For modern Christians, the book perhaps functions as a dare: To consider what Jesus demands, instead of (or as much as) what God will bring — and how the first disciples feared God’s wrath if they couldn’t meet those demands. Jesus demanded a rigorous pacifism, for example, and not all religious martyrs are pacifist; the path of non-violence is a hard one. For Jesus, “to profess God as Father entails taking a stance, and to pledge oneself to demonstrating and proclaiming this certain way of being in the world”. Biblical scholars are at their best when they force relevant questions in view of original intentions, and that’s what Gibson does in The Disciples’ Prayer.

11. Babatha’s Orchard, Philip Esler, 2017. If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be immensely proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. “I am not concerned,” says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from New Testament scholars. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha documents dated between 94 and 132 AD, which consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land. It’s feels like a true archaeological adventure to read this book, but without any of the sensationalism of Indiana Jones movies or Herschel Shanks’ yellow journalism in Biblical Archaeology Review.

12. Recovering Communion in a Violent World, Christopher Grundy, 2019. This book is an attempt to reform the eucharist of its violent theology. Christians would be better off, says Grundy, to accept that Jesus’ death was unnecessary, and to focus on the meal practices of the New Testament that don’t rely on his body and blood (however real or symbolic) or reenact his execution. Alternative examples include the manna-and-water traditions (I Cor 10), drawing from the Exodus and Number stories, tied to a theme of abundance and the messianic age; the bread-and-fish miracles (in all four gospels), in which there is food for everyone; the Johannine beach breakfast, focused on sharing and abundance; and the bread-only Emmaus story in Luke, urging hospitality even to strangers. Grundy suggests that Holy Communion can be just as sacramental (and more positively so) in the meeting of strangers across boundaries, sharing one’s food, and feeding hungry bodies. In this sense, the eucharist can become primarily about what Jesus did instead of what was done to him. Grundy sees a disturbing connection between the “objectification” of Jesus’ body in the traditional eucharist, and the way people objectify others, whether sexually, violently, or both. That sounds a bit far-fetched, but Grundy is careful in how he explains this: “It’s not that the eucharist carries an explicit message that objectifying people is okay,” he writes, “but rather that without really noticing, Christian believers create opportunities for our instincts to be structured by objectifying practices that we don’t understand all that clearly.” Likewise, he doesn’t say that the eucharist promotes violence per se, but rather that Christians engage themselves in ritualized acts of collective violence without asking if what was done to Jesus was really necessary. Ritualized violence can shape the believer, whether consciously or not. It’s a fascinating book, and makes for an excellent supplement to Stephen Finlan’s Problems with Atonement (though there is no mention of Finlan in the bibliography). See also my review of Finlan’s analysis of the different and conflicting death metaphors in Paul’s letters.

moh_and_cha_revisited13. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott, 2012. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it wouldn’t have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. The lights went out with the arrival of Islam, and from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. Full review here.

14. The Wife of Jesus, Anthony Le Donne, 2013. No, this isn’t crankville. Anthony Le Donne isn’t Simcha Jacobovici or Michael Baigent. The Wife of Jesus doesn’t even really argue that Jesus had a wife, though it allows for the strong possibility that he had one in his 20s, prior to his prophetic ministry. The only thing the book shares in common with sensationalist cousins is its accessibility: it’s written for everyone, not just academics, and well about time on this subject from a reliable scholar. Le Donne’s argument is essentially that many Christians have been right for the wrong reasons. While the gospels don’t say that Jesus had a wife, neither do they say he didn’t, and silence means nothing. Wives were a given in Jesus’s day, and weren’t mentioned unless context warranted it. (Peter’s wife, for instance, is never mentioned, but his mother-in-law is healed.) Jesus could have been married prior to becoming a prophet, and it’s more plausible that he was married, say, in his 20s and that his wife died in childbirth (as was extremely common), than that he would have shamefully dishonored his family by rejecting the Abrahamic blessing of progeny. Only by the time of his itinerant career was Jesus single and celibate and engaged in the flagrant dishonor of severing blood ties and advocating prophetic celibacy. But while The Wife of Jesus is devoid of sensationalism, never fear: sensationalist claims are addressed by Le Donne, which makes the book fun (and amusing at times) to read. He covers the recent hoax of the Jesus’ Wife fragment, noting that whoever forged it had internet access to a source with a typographical error which the forger copied. He even discusses the Secret Mark hoax, which of course depicted a gay Jesus. It’s a concise and enjoyable book that deserves a wide audience.

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15. Waking Up, Sam Harris, 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing. I’m still lousy at it, but I can say that I’ve benefited at least some from trying.

16. Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, David Watson, 2010. The secret is out now: there never was a messianic secret, whether from Jesus’ life or pre-Markan traditions. “Secrecy is nothing more than our own bewilderment projected into the Markan text,” once wrote a scholar, and Watson finally puts the idea to rest. David Watson shows that the “secrecy” passages in Mark wouldn’t have been understood as such by the ancients. In silencing those he healed, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep his identity or healing ability secret (as if that would be possible in a world of rampant gossip networks), but rather to resist achieved honor. In patron-client cultures, recipients of benefaction are expected to repay their benefactor through public praise, and it’s this kind of honor which Jesus resists. In silencing demons, likewise, Jesus is resisting ascribed honor, since a demon calling him “the Holy One of God” would be issuing a positive challenge and staking a claim on him; Jesus refuses to become indebted to demons and drawn into the laws of reciprocation. While the Markan Jesus doesn’t do away with the honor-shame system altogether (no one in antiquity could do that an survive), he does offer a new vision in its place, by claiming that the persecuted and suffering will be honored, and the great and powerful will be shamed. Basically, Mark portrays Jesus as authoritative and deserving of honor even as he reshapes the way that honor was conventionally assigned. This is a terrific book filled with insights that seem too obvious once pointed out.

17. The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Spencer, 2019. Many will find this book dispiriting, but reality is often just that, especially in the Middle-East. Spencer chronicles the failure of every peace attempt that has been made for the last 40 years, showing quite clearly that the attempts failed for one reason only: the Muslims of Palestine and surrounding Arab countries were never going to accept a Jewish state in any form. The Islamic imperative, “Drive out those who drove you out” allows for no mitigation — not even when the land of Palestine wasn’t theirs to claim. He starts with Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Accords, and the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was never interested in genuine peace. He then proceeds to the time of Bill Clinton, explaining how Yasser Arafat went from denouncing terrorism and promising to recognize the State of Israel (in ’93), to the same Arafat who said that he recognized only holy war, and that the PLO would sacrifice every last boy to see the Palestinian flag fly over the walls of Jerusalem (in ’96). Arafat simply followed the example of Muhammad, for whom deception was honorable. And so on. Spencer shows that the solution to the Middle-East lies not in peace processes which are guaranteed to fail, but containment or management of the problem, and for western countries to openly admit that a Palestinian state will by necessity be an inveterate enemy of Israel no matter what. This book is a serious wake-up call to pull western policy makers out of dreamland.

night-comes18. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison, 2016. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

19. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers, Philip Esler, 2017. Esler is always a great read, and his most recent effort feels downright epic, especially if you love the Enoch myths as I do. The focus is on the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36), for which the dominant stream interprets heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, and for which Esler finds no basis at all. When Israelite authors around this time wished to present heaven as a temple, they did exactly that. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, heaven is the temple, God is in the holy of holies, and the angels are priests who sing God’s praises and offer fragrant sacrifices. One looks in vain to find any of these elements in I Enoch 1-36 — even if everyone sees them anyway. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers is, then, a shot across the bow of a considerable body of scholarship. Its thesis is that heaven is understood in terms of a royal court, in which the king (God) is surrounded by his courtiers (the angels). While some scholars make occasional references to the Enochic heaven as a court, the idea is never taken that seriously, and it’s way eclipsed by the supposed idea that heaven is a temple in which the angels are understood to be priests instead of courtiers. Esler refutes that by first examining the angels (their duties, access rights, and mediation techniques), then the Watchers (their “defilement”, “great sin”, and their justice), and then finally the architecture of God’s abode. What becomes clear is that the temple metaphor is non-existent, and the court metaphor so obvious that how did it take this long for us to see? Full review here.

Short_Stories_Jesus_Levine20. Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, 2014. This book will be welcomed by liberal religious thinkers who think the sun shines on everyone with minimal judgment. Amy-Jill Levine claims that Jesus’ parables show people torn apart and then reconciled, benefiting from each other for all their differences; a divided world made whole through responsible human effort. If you embrace that kind of wisdom as I do, then this book just might be the next-best thing to the bible itself. The question is whether or not this wisdom can really be derived from the historical Jesus. The reversal of values theme which permeates the gospels receives no support in Levine’s readings. She claims that “the last coming first and the first last” is always an editorial intrusion. And despite what scholars tell us about the fierce boundaries drawn by fictive kinship networks like the Jesus movement, she won’t abide any “Us-vs.Them” mentality that reinforces judgments and divisions. The problem is that she has an axe to grind against those see everything Jesus said as being aimed against an oppressive Jewish context. If Jesus critiqued purity laws, then Judaism was legalistic; if Jesus was open to Gentiles, then Judaism was racist; if Jesus stood up for widows and women, then Judaism was misogynistic; if Jesus went to bat for the sick and poor, then Judaism was heartless. It’s true that Judaism has become a punching bag — for pastors and scholars alike — and Levine wants to rectify this problem by showing that Jesus’ hostilities are all mirages. Unfortunately, this means Jesus isn’t left with much to criticize at all, because Levine sees anti-Jewish foils under every rock. I think she makes Jesus out to be too ideal; indeed she aligns him with modern Unitarian Universalism. But then (from my UU perspective) that’s precisely why these parable readings are such good theology, even if they’re bad history. Maybe that’s a backhanded compliment, but if used the right way, Short Stories by Jesus is an important contribution.

* Stranger Things: The College Years and Beyond, Loren Rosson, 2018. As a bonus, I’m shamelessly promoting my own work, and fiction to boot, which I had said wasn’t included. But I’m happy with what I did here, and gratified by the positive reception to it. This is a trilogy of generational stories that follow the kids we love from the TV series — Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin, and Will — into their adult lives. There’s pain and heartache, perhaps more than some readers will find bearable, but hopefully inspiring in the ways tragedy should be. The first novella is The College Years, set in 1990, with an estranged Mike Wheeler able only to harm those he loves. The second is The New Generation, set in 2009, involving an Upside-Down creature nesting in the internet, and attacking a kid through his computer screensaver. Finally it all comes together in World’s End, in the future of 2037, after Donald Trump has gotten America nuked, and salvation (if that’s what it can be called) lies in a particular twelve-year old who can time travel. That’s the best spoiler-free synopsis I can offer, and if you really like the trilogy, I wrote three prequel novellas as well.

Free Speech on Campus (6): What’s at Stake?

The authors wrote this book out of a concern that “much of the current debate over the learning environment on college campuses gives insufficient attention to the values of free speech and academic freedom — the philosophical, moral, and practical arguments in support of these principles, the lessons of the historical record, and the current state of the law. Surveys reveal that students’ support for basic free speech principles is dramatically eroding.”

Many factors have contributed to this trend especially since the ’90s, but a big one is the collapse of traditional network news and rise of “curated” information gathering on cable and online. It’s been much easier in recent decades for people to listen to those with whom they already agree, and to respond to opposing viewpoints with mockery and charges of bad will. Colleges and universities should be a corrective to this trend instead of following it.

The stakes are high, conclude the authors, as we help today’s generation of students understand why free expression matters, on college campuses and in the world. They can hardly be expected to fight for free speech values if they don’t understand their history, practicality, and ethical premises. I found this book to be a helpful presentation of the issue and highly recommend it.

Free Speech on Campus (5): What Campuses Should and Shouldn’t Do

Hate speech codes are a bad idea, but it’s a mistake to ignore the harmful effects of hateful and bullying speech. According to the authors, “free speech advocates must acknowledge the admirable values that tempt people toward censorship, and then provide a road map for addressing these issues in a way that does not undermine higher education’s necessary commitment to free speech, academic freedom, unfettered inquiry, and robust debate”.

They offer a series of cans and can’ts, or shoulds and shouldn’ts for private universities. Here are the highlights.

  • Faculty members may choose to provide students warnings before presenting material that might be offensive or upsetting to them. Colleges and universities should not, however, impose requirements that faculty provide such “trigger warnings”.

Professors need to decide how to best educate their students without being micromanaged by the administration. In some cases a professor’s judgment might be that being exposed to disturbing material without warning will make for more effective instruction. Besides, understanding cuts both ways. Just as professors should not be tone deaf to the feelings of their students, students need to prepare themselves for the real world where they won’t be coddled.

  • Campuses should create “safe spaces” in educational settings that ensure that people feel free to express the widest array of viewpoints. They should not uses the concept of “safe spaces” to censor the expression of ideas considered too offensive for students to hear.

Put simply: you go to college not to learn things which comfort you, but to learn things that shatter you out of your comfort zones. That’s what education is about.

  • Campuses can sensitize faculty and students to the impact certain words will have, as part of an effort to create a respectful work and learning environment. But they should not prohibit or punish faculty or students from using words that some consider to be examples of “microaggressions”.

We should all listen when others tell us they feel insulted and hurt.

  • Campuses should expect university administrators to speak out against especially egregious speech acts and intolerance as a way of demonstrating the power of “more speech” rather than enforced silence. They should not expect the administrators to comment on or condemn every campus speech act that some person considers offensive.

It’s cliche by this point, but a lesson that’s being lost, that the best remedy for speech we don’t like is more speech — robust counter-speech that rigorously challenges what we object to.

The authors list other campus agenda items:

  • Protect the rights of all students to engage in meaningful protest and to distribute materials that get their message out, while at the same time preventing disruptions of university activities.
  • Ensure that campus dormitories are safe spaces of repose, short of imposing content-based restrictions on speech.
  • Establish clear reporting requirements so that incidents of discriminatory practices can be quickly investigated and addressed.
  • Encourage faculty and students to research and learn about the harms associated with intolerance and structural discrimination, and sponsoring academic symposia.
  • Organize co-curricular activities that celebrate cultural diversity and provide victims of hateful and bullying acts the opportunity to be heard.

In the final chapter we’ll see what’s ultimately at stake in all of this.

Free Speech on Campus (4): Hate Speech

The authors survey the Supreme Court rulings on hate speech issues (pp 82-97) and then with this background turn to the issue of hate speech codes in campus settings (97-110).

The problem is that in practice, hate speech codes are used less against the hateful slurs that inspire their passage, and more against opinions that people disagree with. For example, when the University of Michigan adopted hate speech codes in 1988, one student got in trouble because he claimed that Jewish people used the Holocaust to justify Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Another student faced punishment for simply stating that he had heard minorities had difficulty in a particular course. A graduate student was at risk for exploring certain theories in his field of psychobiology. The courts then struck down the hate speech codes as unconstitutional, and between 1989-1995, the courts ruled similarly against the hate speech codes adopted by other colleges and universities.

Hate speech codes, in other words, “inescapably ban the expression of unpopular ideas and views, which is never tolerable in colleges and universities”. This relates to the problem I mentioned in the chapter-2 post, that one person’s hate is another’s struggle against injustice and oppression (Hirsi Ali, Nawaz).

Statistics are relevant. There is no evidence that hate speech laws or codes result in more tolerant attitudes. According to FBI reports, hate crimes in America decreased from 1996 to 2010 to 2015, without hate speech laws. (For that matter, same-sex marriage has gained much wider acceptance between 2001 and 2016, not because homophobic speech has been punished or silenced, but because of the increased presence of gay and lesbian voices in American culture and politics.) By contrast, in Europe, the Anti-Defamation League’s survey of anti-Semitism reports higher levels than in America, despite their having hate speech laws.

Some of today’s students like to claim that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment, though of course it is. Threats are not protected by the First Amendment. Inciting violence and harassment aren’t either. Ditto for child pornography, the use of copyright, disturbing the peace, threatening national security, etc. These are sometimes called examples of “restrictions on free speech”, but they go beyond offensive opinion content and translate directly into harmful action or violating the rights of others. Child pornography is illegal not because of how offensive it is, but because it involves exploitation of children. Threats are illegal not because they’re emotionally upsetting, but because they cause a person to fear physical harm. Etc.

To censor hate speech would be to censor something solely on the basis of its offensiveness and opinion content, which is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect. This is not to dismiss the emotional harm that comes by hate speech, and the authors address what can be done about that in the next chapter.

Free Speech on Campus (3): Colleges and Universities

In chapter 3 the authors distinguish between two zones of free expression in college and university settings: (1) a professional zone, which “protects the expression of ideas but imposes an obligation of responsible discourse and responsible conduct in formal educational and scholarly settings”, and (2) a larger free speech zone, which “exists outside scholarly and administrative settings and where the only restrictions are those of society at large”. On this understanding, members of the campus community may say things in the free speech zone that they wouldn’t be allowed to say in the core educational and research environment.

In their view, colleges and universities should never punish faculty members or students who express controversial or offensive views outside the professional educational context, where there are no enforceable scholarly standards, and no disruption of the educational context other than the fact that people might take offense. So faculty and students who behave properly in the classroom and do not illegally harass others, should not be punished for controversial or offensive statements made on their own time. This is basically what is enforced in public universities, and the authors believe, as do I, that it should be enforced (though not legally required) at any institution of higher learning that wants to be taken seriously as such.

On the question of guest speakers, the authors bring up The Bell Curve, which is a good example since it was just last year that hundreds of students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down Charles Murray (one of the book’s co-authors) and started violence that left a faculty member injured. The Bell Curve was published in 1994, and argued for racial differences in intelligence which account for different levels of economic and social success in America. Then as now, it was tempting to prevent the idea from being aired on a college platform, but rather than being worse off for it, society was better off since the book was subjected to rigorous scholarship and refuted on that professional basis. Angry students don’t have veto power, in any case, over students who want to hear the speaker.

The authors give a short history of colleges and universities in America, and their long road to intellectual freedom, culminating in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, and a good discussion of the “six-year war” fought long and hard over free speech rights on campus. How Berkeley has dramatically changed since then, with its students protesting Bill Maher as the 2014 commencement speaker for his supposed “hate speech”. Which is the subject of the next chapter.

Free Speech on Campus (2): How Times Change

One of the striking points the authors make in chapter 2 is that today’s generation of students don’t value free speech like previous generations did, because the idea is more of an abstraction to them. They didn’t grow up in times when the act of punishing speech was associated with undermining good values — the eras of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests. Those who experienced these generations saw how officials tried to silence or punish protesters in the name of community values and protecting public peace, which is the same rationale used by today’s liberals.

Back in those days (the 60s-80s), liberals “owned” free speech, in the way conservatives “own” the right to bear arms. Liberals and minorities fought racism, sexism, and homophobia tooth and nail, but they drew the line at trying to silence their foes. They were better than that. The right to speak your racist/sexist/homophobic mind — whether on campus or not — was for the most part taken for granted. The reason for this is as the authors say: the enemies of free speech tended to be conservatives, not liberals, right up to the end of the ’80s, when it almost became illegal to burn the American flag. Threats to free speech were identified as a right-wing issue, and liberals didn’t want to be hypocrites. That all began changing in the ’90s.

Throughout history the alternative to free speech — governmental control of ideas — has always led to disaster, regardless of what end of the political spectrum is in control. Censorship is on the side of conformity, authoritarianism, and the status quo. Today’s liberals suggest the opposite: that governmental control of ideas can be used for positive things, like protecting the vulnerable. But history refutes this. Social progress has never come by silencing offensive speakers. It has come by ensuring that previously silenced or marginalized groups are empowered to find their voice and express their views. That’s the way to fight discriminatory and bigoted speech.

Every generation tries to suppress speech for reasons that seem noble at the time. Today it’s to help create inclusive learning environments for minorities. Before that it was to stop pornography which offended women. Before that it was to stop flag burning out of respect for one’s country. Decades before, it was to stop communism. Further back, during World War I, it was to preserve the draft and win the war. Hindsight always shows, with embarrassing clarity, how misguided these efforts are. It will show the same thing for today’s efforts to silence hate speech.

How so? The authors address hate speech in chapter 4, which I’ll cover in detail, but for now I’ll mention an obvious problem. One person’s hate speech is another person’s lone voice crying against oppression and injustice. Aayan Hirsi Ali (a human rights activist) and Maajid Nawaz (a Muslim reformer) are examples of progressive-minded liberals who have been branded as hateful for speaking facts about the Islamic religion. “Hate speech” accusations have been attempts to silence them for their views which are inconvenient but certainly not hateful. In the case of Aayan Hirsi Ali, she has been banned from college campuses for her “hateful” opinions. That alone shows why hate speech codes are a bad idea, and we’ll see more when we look at chapter 4.

Free Speech on Campus

This is the book on campus free speech I’ve been waiting for. The authors are constitutional scholars who teach a course in free speech to undergraduates, and their position is that campuses must provide supportive learning environments for an increasingly diverse student body while never restricting the expression of ideas in the process. I’ll summarize the six chapters below, and then devote a separate blogpost for each chapter over the next week.

Chapter 1: The New Censorship. The authors’ central thesis is that all ideas and views should be able to be expressed on college campuses, no matter how offensive or how uncomfortable they make people feel. But there are steps that campuses can and should take to create inclusive communities where all students feel protected, without catering to “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions”.

Chapter 2: Why Free Speech is Important. A brief history of how the idea evolved. Today’s generation often has little understanding why it is a crucial right that needs to be protected.

Chapter 3: Free Speech at Colleges and Universities. Free speech is important in society as a whole, but even more so on college campuses. The authors’ position is absolute: campuses never can censor or punish the expression of ideas, no matter how offensive, because otherwise they cannot perform their function of promoting inquiry, discovery, and the dissemination of new knowledge. Although the First Amendment applies only to public universities (and rightly so, as a matter of law), all colleges and universities nevertheless should commit themselves to these values.

Chapter 4: Hate Speech. The authors look at the real harm caused by hate speech on campus, review the First Amendment in this area as well as the history of hate speech codes, and explain that although well intentioned, campus bans on hate speech are not desirable.

Chapter 5: What Campuses Can and Can’t Do. This chapter offers ideas on how to create inclusive learning environments without undermining freedom of speech and expression. Most notably — and this is often overlooked — campus leaders can engage in more speech themselves, by proclaiming the type of community they seek and condemning speech (without censoring it or punishing the speakers) that is inconsistent with those goals.

Chapter 6: What’s at Stake? The final chapter looks to the future. If campus leaders allow calls for “safe spaces” to suppress the expression of any idea, little will remain of free speech or academic inquiry. But if campus leaders do not find ways to create a conducive learning environment for everyone (without suppressing ideas), they will discover that they have provided free speech to some but not for all.

Salon on “New Atheism” and the Alt-Right (Michael Turton’s Reply)

On his Facebook page, Richard Carrier linked to a Salon article, “From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How New Atheism Slid into the Alt-Right”, with approval. Like most Salon articles it’s garbage, and Michael Turton wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the FB comments. I’ve pasted his comments below (Carrier’s FB page is public), and added a few observations of my own in bold.

[Turton] Let’s look at the article as the lifelong atheist and political activist and popular niche blogger that I am. After three paragraphs of Harris’ views on Islam (but note, we get no evidence that this is a problem for “the movement” or “the leaders”, just Harris), we get this:

[Salon] This resulted in an exodus of women from the movement who decided that the “new atheist” label was no longer for them. (I know of many diehard atheist women who wanted nothing to do with “new atheism,” which is a real shame.)

[Turton] No evidence is presented for this “exodus”.

[Salon] Along these lines, the new atheist movement has flirted with misogyny for years. Harris’ “estrogen vibe” statement — which yielded a defense rather than a gracious apology — was only the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned above, there have been numerous allegations of sexual assault, and atheist conferences have pretty consistently been male-dominated — resulting in something like a “gender Matthew effect.”

[Turton] This isn’t a problem with the New Atheist movement. This is a problem with Skepticism in general. I believe the anthropologist David Hess wrote Science in the New Age, which discusses the gendered/gender problem in Skepticism almost 25 years ago. This is not a new issue. Obviously, the author does not understand the issue he is addressing or how the New Atheists are connected to it.

[Salon] Many leading figures have recently allied themselves with small-time television personality Dave Rubin, a guy who has repeatedly given Milo Yiannopoulos — the professional right-wing troll who once said that little boys would stop complaining about being raped by Catholic priests if the priests were as good-looking as he is — a platform on his show. In a tweet from last May, Rubin said “I’d like a signed copy, please” in response to a picture that reads: “Ah. Peace and quiet. #ADayWithoutAWoman.” If, say, Paul Ryan were asked, he’d describe this as “sort of like the textbook definition of a misogynistic comment.” Did any new atheist leaders complain about this tweet? Of course not, much to the frustration of critical thinkers like myself who actually care about how women are treated in society.

[Turton] “Many leading figures have allied…” No evidence is presented for “leading figures” who are “allied”. Connecting Milo to the New Atheists in this way is a smear. “Did atheist leaders complain about this tweet?” Seriously? I doubt Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris spends much time combing the literally millions of tweets of other atheists for things to police them on. They have productive lives. And why would we expect them to complain about a tweet of someone whom the author himself identifies as a marginal figure (!). Excellent clickbait, that rhetorical question — it is so good the author resorts to it twice (“Has any leader….?”.) You could go on asking “Has any leader…?” rhetorical questions all day long. A question like that is designed to emotionally appeal to the article’s target audience, without actually making any survey or showing why anyone would bother to respond to a tweet from a marginal figure. As if silence constituted endorsement.

Turton is right that connecting Milo to the new atheist movement is a ludicrous smear, but I would also point out that Dave Rubin runs a good show, and he is to be commended for having Milo Yiannopoulos on as a guest, just as Bill Maher did on Real Time. Reason being: when leftists try shouting down and silencing people — even idiot trolls like Milo — it becomes virtuous to give a platform to those idiots you would otherwise ignore. Chris Hayes made the same point about the “Draw Muhammad cartoon” contest held in Garland Texas two years ago (and it was refreshing to see a liberal like Hayes school his fellow leftists). When jihadists respond to cartoons of Muhammad by killing people, it’s necessary to be offensive and draw more cartoons, otherwise you’re catering to sharia blasphemy law and letting jihadists rule you through fear. Or, as Hayes made the analogy with his own profession, if he were considering doing a segment that he was on the fence about or didn’t even like, but then someone came to him and said, “You can’t do that segment because of an advertiser”, then he would absolutely do the segment, because “It has to be the case that we can do that segment”.

Ditto for Milo. Neither Dave Rubin nor Bill Maher make a habit of inviting trolls, but they will when everyone else resorts to thuggish silencing strategies that are only getting worse on college campuses. Objections about being inflammatory, or unfair to an advertiser, etc., go straight out the window at the moment the aggrieved group tells you to stop or be stopped, to submit or be killed, etc.

[Salon] In fact, the magazine Skeptic just published a glowing review of Yiannopoulos’ recent book, “Dangerous.” The great irony of this intellectual misstep is that Yiannopoulos embodies the opposite of nearly every trend of moral progress that Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic, identifies in his book “The Moral Arc.”

[Turton] (1) One author at Skeptic appears to like Milo… clearly this means that the New Atheist movement loves Milo. Can the author show us numerous New Atheist personalities who like Milo? Nope. (2) Do New Atheists control the editorial decision-making of The Skeptic? I think not, which means that — you guessed it — this is a smear, typical of Salon clickbait articles. Even better, the piece has a clickbait image at the top that puts Harris together with Milo the idiot. But it is photoshopped. A smear so obvious no one noticed it.

[Salon] Perhaps the most alarming instance of irrationality in recent memory, though, is Sam Harris’ recent claim that black people are less intelligent than white people.

[Turton] The author then spends four paragraphs explaining to us about IQ and race. Harris’ views are totally nutcase and evil. Are they widely held in the New Atheist movement or among its leaders? It is not difficult to find Dawkins saying that race is real but meaningless. Obviously, if Harris being an idiot proves that the New Atheists are evil racists, why doesn’t Dawkins saying race is meaningless prove the opposite?

Moreover, Hitchens, whom the author mentions, has written abusively about the idiocy of the race-IQ connection:

“There is, and there always has been, an unusually high and consistent correlation between the stupidity of a given person and that person’s propensity to be impressed by the measurement of I.Q.” [“Minority Report,” Nation, 11/28/94]

“Linguistics, genetics, paleontology, anthropology: All are busily demonstrating that we as a species have no objective problem of ‘race.’ What we still do seem to have are all these racists.” [“Minority Report,” Nation , 11/28/94]

Again, very obviously — if a “leader” of the movement asserting X means the whole movement is X, then why doesn’t Hitchens’ savage denunciation of that mean anything? Shouldn’t both Hitch and Dawkins’ remarks show that the New Atheist movement is solid on race? But no… painting Harris as a worshiper of Murray and a fool on race and IQ makes for much better clickbait. Salon’s clickbait articles work by rhetorical appeal to the “reasonable middle”. This is hardly the first such clickbait article on atheism at Salon, one reason I stopped reading Salon was because of the regular flow of such articles.

I agree with Turton that the sins of one person don’t reflect the views of a movement, but for the record, I seriously doubt that Sam Harris is, as Turton says, “totally nutcase and evil” on the subject of IQ and race. I admit I haven’t followed his views and interactions with Murray, but I have found that every time Harris is smeared on other subjects (like torture, or Islam), his views have either been distorted, exaggerated, or deliberately taken out of context. (Turton himself points this out in the case of Ben Carson below.)

Even Murray, while holding what I take to be incorrect views on the subject of race, has been overly maligned, and I doubt he is a racist. He’s an advocate for gay marriage and has two half-Asian kids for Christ’s sake. His error lies in dismissing the effects of socialization on race data, but his arguments should be rejected or upheld on the basis of scientific methodology, not political ideology. Reasoned refutations, not ad hominems and shut-down strategies, are the proper counters.

[Turton] Then comes this brilliance:

[Salon] On a personal note, a recent experience further cemented my view that the new atheists are guilty of false advertising. A podcaster named Lalo Dagach saw that I had criticized Harris’ understanding of Islamic terrorism, which I believe lacks scholarly rigor.

[Turton] The author spends two paragraphs discussing some marginal podcaster’s behavior towards the author as if that were somehow indicative of an entire movement. How? The podcaster is one marginal person. This personal digression is merely a bit of entitled whining about being attacked online that says nothing about New Atheism as a whole. If whipping up followers to attack people were a proclivity of New Atheists as a whole and the author could provide many examples, then perhaps this might have a place in this essay. Otherwise, no. It’s pure whining designed — once again — to appeal to the emotions of the audience which has already been nodding along. The author still hasn’t learned that if you jump in online, people are going to abuse you.

[Salon] From censoring people online while claiming to support free speech to endorsing scientifically unfounded claims about race and intelligence to asserting, as Harris once did, that the profoundly ignorant Ben Carson would make a better president than the profoundly knowledgeable Noam Chomsky, the movement has repeatedly shown itself to lack precisely the values it once avowed to uphold.

[Turton] This sweeping conclusion is hilarious and such stunningly obvious clickbait. “From censoring people online” — the author conflates his own experience with some nobody podcaster with the habits of the entire movement. You can’t “censor people online” unless you are the Communist Party of China and own the entire internet. Anyone can comment anywhere on the internet, at least in most of the West. Harris’s comments on race and Islam somehow stand for an entire movement. The provocative one on Ben Carson is especially hilarious, since Harris dismisses Carson as a nutcase in the very next sentence (which the author ignores, of course). Harris was obviously indulging in rhetoric to make a point about the “Islamic threat.” But obviously, it isn’t good clickbait to note that Harris was just being rhetorical.

Indeed. As I said above, Harris is regularly taken out of context, if not outright misrepresented. That tends to be what happens to those who speak unwelcome truths.

[Turton] If you are going to say “This movement is X and I don’t like it!” then you need to provide many examples/surveys etc that show that the whole movement is X. None are provided here, the article is simply a clickbait attack largely on Harris, designed to appeal to the audience of New Atheists like himself (and myself) who wish Harris would STFU about Islam and that they would address the mysogyny in the skeptic movement.

Turton is correct that the Salon article is a ridiculous hit piece on Harris. However, Harris should not stop speaking about Islam. His task has been a thankless one in explaining that (1) Islam has more dangerous and toxic ideas than other religions, (2) these ideas (jihad, sharia, geographical expansion) saturate the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira, and thus have always been mainstream and mandatory in all Islamic schools of jurisprudence, and (3) they are believed and enacted on by a disproportionate number of Muslims (who may be a minority, but by no means the fringe). He should be applauded for this, along with Maajid Nawaz (Harris’ colleague), Asra Nomani, Aayan Hirsi Ali, and Bill Maher — people who are far more progressive than leftists who cry “Islamophobia” in the name of cultural tolerance.

(“Islamophobia” is a propagandist term in any case, intended to shut down criticism of the religion Islam in advance. The correct term for racism is “anti-Muslim bigotry”, just as we use “anti-Semitism” and not “Judaiaphobia”).

In sum, I agree with Michael Turton that the Salon article is worthless, but would go further in correcting the smears of certain individuals.

On Ranking the World Religions

In Fuck it: Let’s Rank the Religions, Clickhole serves up the usual satire, ranking the world religions as follows:

1. Hinduism
2. Bahá’í
3. Judaism
4. Islam
5. Mormonism
6. Buddhism
7. Christianity
8. Sikhism
9. Shintoism
10. All the others

Here’s my more serious attempt at the exercise, though with tongue-in-cheek elements too. Sue me, I couldn’t resist.

1. Unitarian Universalism. 5 stars. I became a UU because I agree with its seven core principles: (1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person; (2) justice, equity and compassion in human relations; (3) acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in congregations; (4) a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; (5) the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within congregations and in society at large; (6) the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; (7) respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As UUs we ground these principles in humanistic teachings, science, nature and philosophy, personal experience, and sometimes even elements of the world religions.

Cons: Some UU’s are the greatest spiritual con-artists you’ll ever meet. We pretend that we’re religious (we’re actually more a social club), feign spirituality (whatever new-agism is in vogue), and cherish all religions (or at least pretend to) as having more or less equivalent worth, even knowing that it’s bullshit and that our secular values are far superior. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that UU’s are naturally humble and open-minded. We have egos the size of mountains.

2. Buddhism. 4 ½ stars. With its emphasis on meditation and mindfulness, Buddhism is a psychology as much as a religion, and in fact some of the spirituality of Buddhism is accessible in purely secular terms. Transformation through meditation doesn’t depend on the Buddhist faith, though they can go hand in hand. Even doctrines like reincarnation and rebirth have been easily discarded by many Buddhists without being seen as damaging the integrity of the religion. Though many scriptures have been preserved (the Pali Canon), there is no single holy book, which also helps account for its less dogmatic nature.

Cons: The lure of Buddhism is its philosophical maturity and benign tolerance that makes it stand out among the world religions. The cost is that Buddhism isn’t about a neat set of principles. You don’t “believe in the Buddha” for some benefit. Buddhism is about practice much more than belief, and it takes sustained effort to bring about enlightenment — if that comes at all — and it’s not easy.

3. Christianity. 4 stars. If the Buddha showed how to avoid suffering by rising above it (through detachment from the material world), the Christ reversed the cycle of suffering by rising from the dead. Christianity is arguably the religion which most strongly takes on the problem of suffering. The disciples considered persecution a badge of honor, which they were expected to go through without retaliating in violence. Even in the book of Revelation, the faithful don’t engage in holy war and are specifically told not to; they are to conquer the the Beast through witnessing and pacifist martyrdom. The concern for suffering accounts for Christianity’s attention to social justice, strong ethic of charity, and promises of the last being first. At the apocalypse wrongs will be righted and the dead will rise, and even if that’s a fantasy, it has yielded practical theologies about justice and mercy.

Cons: For all its ethic of charity and forgiveness and loving enemies, Christianity has some toxic ideas, the most virulent being homophobia. Unlike other transgressions, sodomy is seen less as a sin and more an indication that one is a reprobate beyond the pale. There has also been a heavy strain of anti-Semitism in Christianity, thanks primarily to the gospel passion narratives, though this has been reformed.

4. Judaism. 4 stars. What intrigues me most about Judaism is its tradition of arguing with and challenging God. Abraham bargained with God for the sake of decent citizens in Sodom and Gomorrah; Job protested the sufferings God dumped on him; etc. Arguments can even get physical, as when Jacob wrestled with an angel at the Jabbok River, and got his name changed to Israel (which means “one who wrestles with God”). The other two Abrahamic faiths (Christianity and Islam) require a complete surrender to faith/God, but there’s a lot more room for push-back in Judaism. God-wrestling is quite a different idea than being a slave to Christ or wholly submissive to the will of Allah. No doubt this tradition was strengthened over the centuries as the Jewish people kept getting the shaft.

Cons: Judaism has its toxic ideas like Christianity, but also that of sacred warfare which has made Zionism possible. While holy war has never been essential to Judaism (unlike Islam), and doesn’t command warfare to be waged beyond Israel’s borders, the injunction to “keep the land pure” is an ingredient that has been taken seriously in even the most dormant periods of the faith. In the medieval period, taking back the land of Israel remained theoretically possible, and the midrash practically shouts that “if the rabbis could have, they would have”. This is unlike the Christian crusades which grew out of many improbable factors and had no basis at all in Christian thought.

5. Taoism. 4 stars. Taoism values inwardness and non-action, which at first blush seems to be a great religion for those of us who believe there is no free will. Wu-Wei is “natural action” that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort, and produces a mental state in which human action is effortlessly aligned with whatever course life is taking. On the other hand, that somewhat misunderstands free will, which has nothing to do with activity vs. passivity; the option to be passive involves just as much a “choice” as that to be strenuously active. (It’s simply that these “choices” don’t involve free will.) Taoism emphasizes health and healing as goals to long life or even immortality, and not being hostage to petty fears. Then too the yin-yang principle of polarity — good and evil being part of one and the same system — commends itself against a more dualistic view.

Cons: At its worst or misguided, Taoism implies that people can’t make a difference (which again misunderstands our lack of free will) and encourages too much passivity. Being detached from our feelings can also be a problem when taken to extremes.

6. Shintoism. 3 ½ stars. The laid-back religion is animistic and centered around kami, or sacred spirits that take the form of animals, plants, rivers, lakes, whatever. People become kami when they die and are honored as such, which is nifty. Shintoism is a highly ethnic religion rooted in Japanese culture and bases most of its beliefs on four ancient tomes: (1) the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), (2) the Shoku Nihongi and its Nihon Shoki (Continuing Chronicles of Japan), (3) the Rikkokushi (Six National Histories), and (4) the Jinnō Shōtōki (a study of Shinto and Japanese politics and history). There’s no clear-cut right or wrong in Shintoism and so things are pretty grey. Shinto rituals are designed to keep away evil kami, on which see below.

Cons: The worst thing about Shintoism is those evil kami. People who die holding a grudge strong enough to keep them attached to the physical world become vengeful spirits (as portrayed in The Grudge and other Japanese horror films), and it’s nigh impossible to escape them, or bargain with them, if they want to tear you apart. Just watching The Grudge damn near gave me a heart-attack.

7. Jainism. 3 ½ stars. A religion that teaches the supremacy of non-violence (the opposite of Islam) has a lot going for it. Whenever people tell you that all religions are equally malleable and prone to violent permutations, you can refute that claim with many examples, but Jainism is Exhibit A. It is impossible to derive violence out of Jainism, which is why it’s never happened. The swastika symbol may cause a double-take, but until Hitler perverted it, the swastika was a positive symbol. In Jainism it stands for the four states of existence: heavenly beings, human beings, hellish beings, and flora/fauna. The Five Great Vows of Jainism require the renunciation of (1) killing anything living, (2) lying, (3) greed, (4) sexual pleasure and (5) worldly attachments.

Cons: Pacifism is a huge plus, but at their extreme the Jains are pacifist to the point of dysfunction. Some of them watch where they place their feet every moment for fear of stepping on bugs, insisting on devices such as mosquito nets instead of insect repellent, smoke, or liquid traps. The stringent asceticism of Jainism is also a bit much for me. Sexual and worldly pleasures are a good part of life.

8. Hinduism. 3 stars. Hinduism is so diverse in its theoretical premises and actual expressions that I hardly know how to rank it. Yes, all religions are diverse in certain ways, but Hinduism is an extraordinary pastiche of monism, theism, monotheism, polytheism, and pantheism — all of these are built into the Hindu worldview. It doesn’t have a founder, it’s based on an impersonal Supreme Reality (Brahman), and the multiple personal manifestations of that reality as God (as Vishnu, Shiva, or Kali, etc). Basically take your theology of choice, and chances are it will find some legitimate basis in Hinduism. There has been a strong tradition of freedom of belief and practice in the religion, and that’s its greatest plus. (In this entry I would include Sikhism, the fifth largest world religion, which grew out of the Bhakti Hindu movement and has elements of Sufi Islam.)

Cons: The tradition of tolerance is great but isn’t anchored in a coherent system. And there’s the flip side: because the Hindu pantheon is so diverse, it has evil deities who demand nasty shit. Like the goddess Kali. The Thuggee (where we get the word “thug”), for example, were a brotherhood of thieves and assassins who pretended friendship with travelers in India before killing them. They were Muslim in origin, but later became associated with the Hindu death cult of Kali. Forget the cartoon portrayal of the Kali cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. For a realistic and thoroughly unpleasant portrayal of Hindu sacrifice read The Song of Kali.

9. Islam. 1 star. Muhammad wasn’t anything like the Buddha or Jesus. He was a warlord, and all the Islamic sources (the Qur’an, Sira, and Hadith) require believers to follow the jihad example. The only ambiguities in the Qur’an are the few passages advocating peace, but they are (a) all too few, (b) subordinate to the many passages which supersede them (the doctrine of abrogation), and (c) are understood to apply only when Muslims are outnumbered and have no chance of winning a war (reflecting the early time of Muhammad’s career). The precept of Islam is clear: perpetual war against all who deny the prophet, the subjugation of infidels (and women) under rule of a caliphate and oppressive sharia law. This has always been the historical norm for Islam and it remains obligatory in all schools of Sunni and Shia thought. There are obviously moderate Muslims, but no form of moderate Islam.

Cons: See above. Islam is saturated with dangerous and toxic ideas. Of all the religions it has done the most damage throughout history, yes, even in Umayyad Spain, which supposedly saw a “golden age” for Islam, but which is a myth.

10. Scientology. 1 star. How anyone takes it seriously is beyond me. It’s science fiction dressed up as religion, but a mentally abusive religion that robs you blind. The #1 goal of the church is to become filthy rich — richer than the goddamn pope. There is no top level in the religion as claimed; when you reach the top of the Bridge (OTP 8) you find out there are more levels after all, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Psychology and psychiatry are condemned, because there is no such thing as mental illness. Church leaders stop their followers from getting proper medical help, and in some cases have caused suicides because of it. Scientology teaches that the individual is responsible for everything and has the power to heal him or herself with church “technology”. Seriously.

Cons: See above. Everything about this religion is a con.

Pulling Down the Veil: Myths, Illusions and the Taboo

The meme is as follows: ten books or bodies of research that either correct common myths or beliefs, engage taboo subjects, or illuminate the human condition in a surprising way. On my list the topics are drawn from the fields of biblical studies, rape fantasies, neuroscience, the crusades, lies and deceptions, drug addiction, and the wild west.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. 2016. The historical myth of our time is the medieval age of Islamic tolerance, especially in Spain where the three faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism supposedly co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony. The question is why this myth persists even among experts if it’s so thoroughly false. Jews and Christians were anything but protected under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to a whole raft of degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. It was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. Perhaps, the author suggests, university presses don’t want to get in trouble by presenting an Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as anything but positive, and that ongoing fears of “Islamophobia” paralyze academic research. But seriously, to promote the idea that Christian dhimmis were content under Islamic rule is as preposterous as saying American blacks were content as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest and Visigoth Spain left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner. This is the book we’ve been waiting for, and that it came from a Harvard PhD is quite a surprise.

bivona2. Rape Fantasies, Jenny Bivona. 2008-2012. The data accumulated on rape fantasies since the ’70s has been considerable, but the subject is so taboo that you can’t find a professional book about it. Jenny Bivona should write one. Her research in the last decade has put to bed common theories about rape fantasies — that they are supposedly pathological and can be blamed on rape-culture conditioning or guilt-ridden sexual repression. In fact, she finds, women who fantasize about being raped often have more positive attitudes toward sex and high self esteem. Bivona has considered no less than nine theories which have tried explaining the puzzling phenomenon. Puzzling because it’s usually not pleasant to imagine being harmed. I.e. To imagine getting into a car accident, or suffering from cancer, isn’t pleasant. But many women (31-57% of them) enjoy rape fantasies that would be traumatic and repulsive if they happened as imagined in the real world. The most plausible theories seem to be those of sympathetic activation (biological arousal resulting from negative feelings), and adversary transformation (psychological excitement provided by negative feelings), which combine and cause negative feelings to co-occur with, or convert into, good ones. Bivona’s research hints at bio-psychological paradoxes that specialists have only begun to grasp.

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3. Waking Up, Sam Harris. 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing.

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4. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E.P. Sanders. 1977. I started reading this book for the fun of it (during a fateful ice storm in the winter of ’91), after a Christian relative told me, apropos Rom 7, why he thought the purpose of the law is to “break you and lead you to Christ”. I found that a curious explanation for moral regulations, but then I wasn’t raised Lutheran. Reading this book showed me what biblical scholars do when they’re at their best in understanding the ancients on their own terms. In the case of ancient Jews, what we think of as legalism was mostly alien to their way of thinking. In Paul’s case, he broke with Judaism by opposing the law and Israel’s special place in the divine cosmos, but not because of a supposed legalism or because Judaic religion was inherently problematic; and certainly not because Paul couldn’t keep the law himself (a practicing Pharisee he’d been perfectly righteous by the law). It was because Christ’s bizarre victory over evil made everything else so trivial that nothing was sacred anymore. As a result, Paul began digging himself into holes explaining why the sacred used to be — and then desperately out of these holes, the steepest slopes being those of Rom 7 and 11. This was the myth-breaker that hooked me in the field of biblical studies.

206285. Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith. 2004. That 60% of people tell 3 lies for every 10 minutes of conversation is sobering, and if you’re reading this right now, you probably think you’re among the 40% who lie less often. That’s what the people in controlled studies thought too, and when they watched their taped conversations played back at them, they were flabbergasted. Thus writes David Livingstone Smith: “Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature; essential to our humanity but disowned at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It’s not reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Societies are networks of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty.” We deceive others and ourselves all the time, because it’s advantageous to do so as a species. We have to fit into social systems and at the same time look out for ourselves above all others. Lying helps on both fronts. This has in view all kinds of lies: socially acceptable lies (normally not considered lies), blatant or bald-faced lies, lies of omission (silent lies), and other forms of deception, including self-deception. Since reading this book I’ve considered honesty the most overrated myth of our species.

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6. Gospel Hoax and The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Stephen Carlson, 2005, and Peter Jeffery, 2006. For a real-life conspiracy thriller, the story behind the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is pretty good, but that hoax was obvious from the start. The “Secret Gospel of Mark”, while always obvious to some, took decades to debunk, and it still has defenders. The two detectives, Carlson and Jeffery, published within a year of each other and with no knowledge of what the other was doing. Neither was a biblical scholar: one was a patent attorney (who has since become a biblical scholar) and the other a musicologist, and each used the insight of forgery experts that texts reflect the personalities and time periods of the forger. Carlson spotted the anachronism of Clement’s salt metaphor (which assumes the 20th-century invention of free-flowing salt) and the homoeroticism between Jesus and the young man tied to Gethsemane (which evokes the mid-20th century oppression against gay men in public parks). Jeffery saw other give-aways, like the baptismal symbolism of mid-20th century Anglican Catholicism (Smith had been an Episcopal priest), and a hilarious allusion to Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (Wilde was a gay martyr). Morton Smith was passionate about the church’s view of homosexuality, he was probably gay, and he wrote on the subject in a time when the subject was rarely discussed.secret mark unveiled His “discovery” of Secret Mark allowed him to claim that Jesus was gay, specifically that Jesus’ baptism ceremonies were used to enter a state of hallucination and ascend into heaven, while their spiritual union with Jesus was accompanied by a physical union of sex. But there’s more. Right before his “discovery”, Smith published an academic paper connecting both Clement of Alexandria and “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), which of course is exactly what Secret Mark is about. Also, Smith was intrigued by the 19th-century debate over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. His “discovery” answers that very question: in the supposed letter, Clement says that one should tell bald-faced lies — indeed, should lie under oath — to those who are easily misled by the truth. I’ve always admired Morton Smith for his brilliance and humor, perhaps less so for his arrogance, but there’s no question that all came together in one of the most successful academic fakes of all time. Carlson and Jeffery show the pitfalls of trust when experts ignore red flags and persist under illusions of academic integrity.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). 2015. For ambitious readers I recommend Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War (2006), which is the definitive treatment of the crusades replacing a dated classic of the ’50s. But Tyerman’s 1000+ page tome can be rough going. Here’s the substitute for less committed readers who still insist on professional, peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord authority of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, theologically problematic, and never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, with scholarly gusto, and people have thanked me for recommending it. My longer review is here.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari. 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed; it’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using.

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9. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler. 2013. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. (Is Judith a proto-Islamic jihadist?) The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force questions about our common humanity.

Bat10. Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, Robert DeArment. 1979. This one is a bit self-indulgent. Recently I was made aware that Bat Masterson (1853-1921) is a distant limb on my family tree, a cousin of my great-great grandmother, which my father never spoke of as he wasn’t pleased to be related to this “despicable” figure of the wild west. Bat’s notoriety, however, has been put to bed since the publication of DeArment’s research. This biography proves that Bat wasn’t the trigger-happy gunslinger of journalistic sensationalism, but rather the result of a joke played on a writer for the New York Sun in August 1881. The reporter was looking for tales of wild-west gunfighters to feed his readers in the east states, and Dr. W.S. Cockrell fed this reporter ridiculously wild fictions of Bat as a maniac who had killed 26 men, sometimes even cutting off their heads as trophies. The reporter wrote all this in the New York Sun, but it was printed in newspapers everywhere, and this “Bat Masterson legend” would persist for decades. Of the 26 people Bat supposedly killed, only two are factual, and they were justifiable homicides in self-defense and defending others. This is a riveting book that makes you live the danger of frontier towns like Dodge City in the 1870s, and I couldn’t put it down for that reason alone.