Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

russellb-whyiamnotachristianThis volume brings together a collection of speeches and essays by the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell. They are all, directly or indirectly, about the topic of religion. In the titular essay, the author explains his reasons for being unconvinced by Christianity. In contrast to the typical view that Jesus was a good man but not the Messiah, Russell has no qualms about suggesting that is not as good or as wise as we often make him out to be. He provides some compelling examples from the gospels, and makes an interesting comparison between the characters of Jesus, Socrates and Buddha, with Jesus seeming rather crude by comparison.

The lecture touches on the themes of what it means to be a Christian; the “first cause” argument for God’s existence; the natural law argument; the argument from design; moral arguments for deity; the remedying of injustice; the character of Jesus and defects in his teaching; how churches hinder progress; how religion uses fear. It’s a good lecture, uncompromising and informative. The only misstep, I felt, was Russell’s suggestion that Jesus may not have existed at all.

The only problem with Russell’s speech is that it doesn’t go deep enough. As an ex-Christian, I recognise that the primary error at the heart of religion is the erroneous notion that mankind is defective and in need of some kind of redemption. When you put in the time and effort to understand your own nature, and nature itself, religion’s entire sales pitch evaporates. Essentially, my answer to the question “Why are you not a Christian?” is “Because I am not broken.” Religion is based upon a profound misdiagnosis of the human condition.

The titular speech is the high point of Russell’s book. The other chapters are variable in quality. The more interesting ones were those where Russell talks about sexuality; he was daringly forward-thinking for the time in which he spoke.

Overall, I have to report that I’m a little disappointed. It’s not that this is a bad book. Just that I was hoping to be blown away by it, given the author’s reputation as a philosopher. I found myself wincing at times at the manner in which Russell occasionally makes overly dramatic accusations which appear to be more emotional than rational. An interesting read, but not an essential addition to my library.

Philosophy in the Bedroom by the Marquis de Sade

desade-philosophybedroomWhile everyone’s feeling naughty for reading E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey these days, I thought I would instead delve into something by the man who gave sadism its name. My fascination with reading Philosophy in the Bedroom actually stems from the fact that I’ve got a soft spot for an old Jess Franco movie called Eugenie, starring the gorgeous Maria Rohm. According to the film’s opening credits, it’s based on the de Sade book here under review. The story is simple: a rich and powerful woman, Madame de Saint Ange, with her brother, Le Chevalier de Mirval, take a naive teenage girl, Eugenie, under their wing and proceed to give her an “education” in the ways of being a libertine, over the course of a weekend. While Franco’s movie does little more than tease the viewer, the original work is quite a different beast.

The book is written in the form of a play, consisting entirely of dialogue – except for occasional stage directions about sexual positions, which were came across as unintentionally comedic. I couldn’t imagine this actually taking place with actors, and I doubt it was ever made real in that fashion. However, I couldn’t help but visualise the actors from Franco’s adaptation in their respective roles. I use the word adaptation loosely, because Franco essentially did his own thing. Trust me, if he followed de Sade’s script, he would’ve been jailed.

I’m not easily shocked when it comes to sexual content, but I have to admit that I was surprised at the extremes depicted by the author. I won’t go into detail, but I simply had no idea that many of de Sade’s sexual kinks had even entered the imagination of man three centuries ago. I was under the impression that the excesses depicted in modern pornography were largely a product of modern pornography. Not so, it seems. They were here all along.

Parts of the book are actually very intelligent. There is a lengthy non-erotic portion concerned with libertine politics, which was rather boring for me. But I thoroughly enjoyed de Sade’s rant against Christianity. It was strikingly blasphemous for the time period, displaying a remarkable courage in a heavily Christianised society.

Central to de Sade’s philosophy is an appeal to nature. He views man, rightly, as a part of nature, not as a thing alienated from nature, as religion teaches. Man is not a creature that has to beat his natural instincts into submission in pursuit of some “higher” ideal. The passions of man have every right to be expressed and enjoyed without guilt, because man is an animal. Arguing thus, de Sade is well ahead of his time. It wasn’t until Charles Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection in the mid-1800s that we were able to scientifically defend what de Sade already saw clearly. Sadly, the author is unable to separate his ideas about nature from his own personal sexual neuroses. To him, every thought that excites him, no matter how deranged, is natural. It looks like the old cliche about genius and insanity being very close companions.

The erotic element of the story, frankly, does get tiresome after a while, and I almost gave up reading halfway through. I did like the philosophical side, though. How do I sum up the Marquis de Sade? Deranged genius? Maybe.

Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III

mellickc-satanburgerThe reason I read this novel was because of the author’s introduction, part of which I now quote:

I wrote this book (basically) when I was 20 years old and on the verge of self-murder. Not sure if my verge was due to a fascination with an unknown afterlife or due to utter boredom. Most likely the latter. The world becomes clearer and clearer the older we become, much less mysterious/exciting and all of its appeal we experienced during childhood turns logical, and logic is a dirty and boring word. This story is from the viewpoint of the rebel, who I am still deeply in love with, who refuses to accept the beliefs (logic) that have been issued to him like a uniform …

Wow, right? Anyway, the story goes something like this. The protagonist is a guy called Leaf, who lives with a bunch of punk friends in a squat. The world is semi-apocalyptic due to the presence of a weird big portal (the Walm) that is steadily stealing souls and also spitting out weird aliens from other planets, who then typically get up to mischief. Leaf and friends team up with Satan, who is a very real being, running a local fast food restaurant called (you guessed it) Satan Burger. The idea is that people have to sell their souls for a burger, and they’re all too willing to do it. And the story just keeps getting weirder from there.

So, apparently I’ve stepped into a genre called “bizarro” fiction. Honestly, I’m not that impressed. Traditional narrative structure has been abandoned in favour of a disjointed, surreal fantasy where anything goes. I had no idea where the story was heading until it got there. And when it got there, I had no idea why it was there. I got the feeling that the author had woven some subtext into the plot, particularly the material about how easy it is to lose your soul – in the sense of becoming a passionless human being who just wanders aimlessly through life. But for the most part, the novel just seemed to be a joyride through a lunatic dream. The weirdness had a creativity and a humour about it that maintained my enthusiasm for a time, but the more it dawned on me that this wasn’t going to ultimately make sense, the more I wanted to stop reading. So I plodded my way to the last page and finally put the book down with a shrug.

Finally, a word on the cover. It has nothing to do with the story. It’s just … bizarro, I suppose. Maybe a photo of somebody’s arse in the air does help sales, in the sense that you can’t help noticing it on the shelf. But I think it has to be one of the worst book covers in history. In bizarro fashion, maybe that’s a plus, in some weird way.

On the strength of the author’s introduction, I really thought I was in for a treat. With regret, I have to report disappointment.

10% Happier by Dan Harris

harrisd-10happierI was especially attracted by the title of this volume because I’ve noticed that spiritual teachers have an unfortunate tendency to promise a lot more than they can actually deliver – Eckhart Tolle with his Zen-like persona being a prime example. I don’t believe in total freedom from suffering; that’s just not realistic. But “ten percent happier” is a phrase I can work with, because it suggests that ordinary human consciousness can be improved rather than transformed.

Dan Harris is a news anchor. Some years ago he took a panic attack in front of the camera. This, and a number of other factors, conspired to lead him to take an active interest in the subject of meditation. 10% Happier charts this journey. It contains fascinating interviews with Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, Harris’s personal struggles with meditation, his time at a retreat. What makes this book unique is that it is told from the perspective of a genuinely interested sceptic. If you’ve read a few volumes on meditation and struggled to understand the practice, Harris’s book will be a welcome relief.

I noticed that the author appears to be a very extraverted person. This might be part of the reason why he struggled so much with meditation. He was accustomed to paying attention to the world of his senses and not to the internal landscape of the mind. Meditation was a way of redirecting that focus. You take away the outside world and you are forced to pay attention to the mind. This helps you to see your own motivations. In short, meditation can show you what an asshole you are.

If the book lacks something, it’s metaphysics. Meditation without metaphysics is a bit of a half-empty sandwich, for me personally. It serves as a form of self-therapy, but you never really tackle the issue of the “self” – coming to terms with the non-existence of an entity sitting between your eyes, while undersanding that consciousness is real. But that’s another story.

Harris also never fully questions his own lifestyle – the whole notion of climbing the ladder of success. He’s looking for a way to maintain his game, but the game itself might be part of the problem. But Dan Harris is who he is. And this book is the most down-to-earth and objective examination of meditation that I have read. For me, it’s one of the more important reads of recent years.

Revival by Stephen King

kings-revivalI don’t read every Stephen King novel that comes out (because he’s too prolific for his own good), but this one attracted me because religion is a topic that I find endlessly fascinating. I consider myself a survivor of the brainwashing exercise of my youth and early adulthood.

The book starts in the mid twentieth century and charts the lifetime of a young boy, Jamie Morton, who is befriended by the new pastor in his hometown, a young man called Charles Jacobs. Pleasantly, this is not a tale of sexual scandal – which makes a change in stories of this type. The friendship is genuine. The real story begins when Jacobs preaches what local folks would later refer to as the Terrible Sermon. The pastor is forced to confront head-on the veracity of his religion’s claims; the placebo pill about God taking care of us no longer works for him, and he is determined to make everyone face the stark truth behind the comforting lies we tell each other. Unsurprisingly, he quits his job and leaves town. But this is not the last time Jamie sees him. Their paths are destined to cross in the future, more than once.

I don’t want to say too much about where this story weaves, because I don’t want to spoil any of it. Suffice it to say, yes it is about a revival tent, as you may have guessed. Does Pastor Jacobs become one of those fraudulent faith healers? Well, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

The best part of the novel, for me, was the conflict between the assertions of faith and the realities of experience. I became very involved with the lives of the characters, and King is his usual masterful self at bringing them to life. Some may consider this story too humdrum, but I think that depends on what topics you find interesting. Things get very dark at the end, tapping into our religious superstitions. King likes to dig his claws into the reader’s head as far as he possibly can. Unfortunately, in my case, this isn’t a place where I possess a button to be pushed. If I weren’t so self-assured, the ending would have disturbed me a lot.

Overall, an above average Stephen King story. It works for one read, but suffers from being too gloomy to ever revisit.

The Black Hole by Alan Dean Foster

fosterad-blackholeNovelisations are a thing of the past – the distant past. They were useful in the days when hardly anyone owned a VCR (that’s video cassette recorder, since the term is no longer in common usage). Back then, the only chance of rewatching a movie was to wait until it was televised. So we had novelisations as a means of re-experiencing our favourite films. But since everything is now available inexpensively on DVD or blu-ray, novelisations are an irrelevance.

Alan Dean Foster could write them well. In the case of his treatment of James Cameron’s Aliens, I recall that it gave fans a chance to experience the content of the extended cut long before it was ever released. The movie The Black Hole is a childhood favourite of mine, and I have always been haunted by the strange ending which involved an elaborate journey through heaven and hell. Very disturbing for an eight-year-old to watch. I could never figure out what the conclusion of the movie was trying to say. So I decided to visit the novelisation and see if Foster would shed any light on the matter.

The story begins with a small spacecraft, the Palomino, carrying a crew of five, travelling through deep space in search of life. They come across a long lost vessel, the Cygnus, positioned just outside a massive black hole – remarkably not being sucked in. The Palomino crew investigate. Aboard the Cygnus is Dr. Hans Reinhardt, living with only robots for company. He has invented gravity-defying technology and plans to take his ship through the black hole. The story and characters are reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Foster adds a lot of detail that wasn’t in the movie, giving Dr. Reinhardt a much more substantial background. There are also a few incidental things that are different from the movie. And what of the trip through heaven and hell, which clearly took up a significant slice of the movie’s budget? Well, Foster ignores it completely, opting for an abstract ending about unified consciousness. I feel cheated, frankly. I wish I had jumped to the last chapter and read it, instead of investing my time in the whole book. Then again, perhaps I was naive for thinking that a 1979 Disney space opera would have a deeper side.

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels

pagelse-originofsatanMy first inkling that there was something wrong with our typical ideas about Satan came as a result of reading the Bible in its entirely. Until one does that, one is usually blind to the fact that Satan is hardly in the Old Testament at all. And when he is mentioned (primarily in the Book fof Job), he doesn’t seem to be the same guy that Christians are familiar with. He’s not the head of a kingdom of fallen angels in opposition to God. Instead, he’s keeping company with the regular angels. And he doesn’t step out of line. When God gives him instructions, he carries them out to the letter. The only “satanic” thing about him is the fact that he has a dirty job; he’s a sort of prosecutor. When God boasts about how much Job loves him, Satan is inclined to be sceptical, claiming that Job is only playing nice because God plays nice. “Take away the benefits and Job will curse you,” says Satan. And so the trials of Job begin.

The Christian depiction of Satan as the powerful “anti-God” is not shared by mainstream Judaism and never was. It was the exclusive view of a few minor sects, such as the Essenes and the one that would blossom into what we now call Christianity. Pagels chief concern is to examine the effects of this rebranding of Satan. The subtitle of the book is “How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics.” The Satan of Christianity represents all that is evil. So the moral dramas of our lives now take on a cosmic significance, as battles between God and Satan. The dangerous side of this is when we come to view the wider arena of the world in the same terms. When we view our enemies as allied with Satan and ourselves as allied with God, we are provided with immediate justification for killing others in the name of God. And that is, of course, the tragedy what has happened in history.

It could have been a much shorter work, except the author painstakingly sets the historical scene – assuming that the reader knows little to nothing of the Biblical period. If the reader is expecting a book all about Satan, he may be disappointed. It’s more of a general history book with a particular emphasis. My only disappointment was that I had been hoping Pagels would shed more light on the influence of Zoroastrianism upon Judaism, as it looks very much as if the modern depiction of Satan originated with the Zoroastrian belief in the struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu.

This book is a non-sensationalist scholarly work that provides a massive challege to Christian theology.