[content warning: discussion of Naziism, violence, persecution of Christians, racism, whorephobia, Maoism]
People who are not participants are welcome to comment to give book recommendations, talk about what other people are reading, or talk about books that they’ve read recently that they disagree with. If you are confused about what the epistemic closure challenge is, read this.
General Notes: First two weeks of actually only reading things I disagree with.
I’ve been mostly reading books I already own, which has sort of been a problem, because books I already own fall into three categories:
(a) Books About Jesus, either because of my interest in the topic or Topher’s dark past as an atheist blogger
(b) Historically important books (Das Kapital, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Mein Kampf)
(c) Books that I definitely disagree with but that are, in a certain sense, part of my ingroup (Nick Kristof writes for the New York Times, Tyler Cowen is an econblogger).
I think (c) is a good thing to include a little of in the challenge, but if I just did that I would kind of be missing the point. So I’m going to be buying books in the future, and I encourage people to give me recommendations for more books (although I’m good on the Jesus books, really).
I have quit reading two books so far. I stopped reading The Progress Paradox when it turned out I agreed with Easterbrook and I had just been confused about what he meant by the word ‘happiness.’ I stopped reading Nobody Passes when I decided it was written by members of my ingroup, just members of my ingroup who are incredibly annoying. (If you went to an Ivy League school, you are not one of the most marginalized! If you grew up upper-middle-class, you are not one of the most marginalized! Your pain is legitimate even if it isn’t the worst pain in the world, but honestly, check your fucking privilege!)
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense: This is like reading a book written by me in a weird alternate universe in which I don’t believe it is necessary to only believe things that are true. Spufford repeatedly says that “it’s not possible to know for sure whether or not God exists”, even though he MENTIONS THE SEQUENCES IN A FOOTNOTE, so he has NO EXCUSE and should know EXACTLY WHY THAT DOES NOT WORK.
Spufford’s description of a spiritual experience is probably one of the most accurate ones I have read.
I definitely thought I had stopped being emotionally moved by Christianity because of my conversion to I-Do-What-I-Want-Ism but then I read this book and, yep, I’m still Jesus trash. Bleh. I think a key part of why I was moved by it is that Spufford does not characterize original sin as everything humans do being depraved and evil, but simply as humans in general having a tendency to be fuckups. As a fuckup, I relate.
One of the things I really like about Unapologetic is that Spufford winds up characterizing Jesus’s frankly absurd moral teaching as a product of Jesus being God. God is reckless self-sacrificial Love; God understands each person as an individual, and end rather than a means, in a way that humans simply can’t. So Jesus has these frankly weird parables, like the parable of the lost sheep: a shepherd who has a hundred sheep loses one and neglects all his other sheep to search everywhere to find it. The obvious response is “no, you don’t do that, at least not before you make sure all the other sheep are safely locked up in the sheep pen; 99 sheep is, in fact, more than one sheep, and if you don’t sacrifice one occasionally you’ll lose all of them.” But possession doesn’t really make intuitive sense to God, while He is acutely sensitive to loss. I personally think this is a fascinating reframe: a God that thinks in a really truly alien way, the way that, you know, the objective ground of being really would.
I also appreciate a story of the crucifixion that emphasizes Gethsemane and “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” This is probably because I’m lucky enough to have never experienced a huge amount of physical pain.
You can tell that Spufford is a Brit because he claims that only a tiny minority of Christians believe in Hell these days. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Disagreement: I am not a Christian.
On Guard: Defending Your Faith With Reason And Precision: uuuuuuuuuuuggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhh
I am really trying to read all the books in this challenge with an open mind, ready to understand other people’s point of view, but Craig’s arguments are SO DUMB.
First of all, Craig claims that it is impossible to avoid despair unless you are immortal and God exists. I feel like this is a remarkable position. Even the strongest anti-deathists I know aren’t going around saying that until the Singularity everyone should be depressed all the time. Also, he says that our actions don’t have any significance unless we are immortal, because eventually there will be the heat death of the universe. To which my response is the following piece of glurge:
A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.
“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?,” he asks.
“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”
“But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”
The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”
It is sort of embarrassing when your theology of suffering is less good than Oprah’s.
I do appreciate Craig’s use of Al-Ghazali; not enough people engage with medieval Muslim theology. That said, his arguments about how God must be the cause of the universe fall apart on closer examination. Time is a feature of this universe; there’s no reason to believe that causality applies before the beginning of the universe, no matter how confusing it is for us to understand how something would work without time. “What caused the universe?” may be a question as confused as “what is to the left of the universe?” (Craig dismisses this as the “taxicab fallacy” but offers no reason to believe that the argument is fallacious, except that causality has to extend before the universe because he says so.)
Craig argues that the universe cannot exist by necessity, because individual particles do not exist by necessity, and then a few pages later mentions that the fallacy of composition is a fallacy. Craig also, at one point, makes an argument about quantum mechanics, justifying one of his premises with “it seems obvious that.” Craig also seems to believe that minds are ‘simple’, more simple than laws of physics, so presumably he will have no problem programming us a Friendly artificial intelligence.
I think Craig’s section on objective moral values could use a bit of tabooing the word ‘morality’, ‘right’, and ‘wrong’. He argues that objective moral values exist because even if Hitler took over the world and everyone came to agree that the Holocaust was right, the Holocaust would still be wrong. But taboo “wrong”. It is true that no one would believe the Holocaust itself is wrong. But even if everyone was a Nazi, it would still be the case that the Holocaust involved the torture and death of millions of people, and that this was based on false ideas about the harm Jews cause, which means the torture and death led to no benefit. It is also the case that harm/care is an important aspect of innate and cross-cultural human morality, which means that nearly all humans disapprove of harming others for no benefit. Therefore, the Holocaust continues to go against what people would believe if they had all the facts.
Now, of course, it is possible that Naziism modifies people so that they no longer are moved by the harm/care aspect of morality. Modern liberals typically have weak to nonexistent degradation/purity and subversion/authority aspects, so this is possible. In that case, I would have to say that the Nazis are not doing anything wrong from the perspective of Nazis, but they are certainly doing something wrong from the perspective of me, and my perspective is the one I care about.
Craig argues that the fact that morality evolved doesn’t mean that our moral sense doesn’t reflect objective moral values (however poorly), in the same way that our physical senses reflect objective reality (however poorly). Of course, this is true. But there’s a solid evolutionary reason why our physical senses reflect reality: if they didn’t, we would be eaten. On the other hand, there’s no reason for us to evolve to pay attention to objective moral values, while there is a solid evolutionary reason for any social species to evolve to be loyal to our tribes, distribute goods fairly, not harm people, etc.
Craig’s resurrection argument seems to work from the puzzling implicit premise that Christianity is the only religion with historically documented miracles, which would no doubt be a surprise to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and practitioners of New Age religions. At no point does he discuss this obvious counterargument.
I can understand why Craig is such a good debater. All his arguments are wrong, but they’re subtly wrong in a way that makes it hard to explain exactly what’s wrong about them. For instance, Craig argues that objective moral values are the same sort of thing that mathematical objects are: just like “seven” exists even though it is not tangible, “goodness” can exist even though it is not tangible. The problem with defending against this argument is that first you have to explain what mathematical Platonism is, then you have to explain that there are alternative theories, then you have to explain why people believe the alternate theories, and by then the entire audience has fallen asleep.
Disagreement: I am not a Christian.
Christian Holiness and Human Sexuality: A Study Guide for Episcopalians: This is an interesting book about how Episcopalians (members of a church that is broadly in favor of gay marriage and connected to a denomination which is mostly not) should think about gay marriage.
One thing I found really interesting was the emphasis on diversity in both senses of the term: both the acceptance of gay people and the acceptance of people with differing viewpoints on LGBT issues. It was striking to me how often criticism of other Episcopalians for not valuing diversity meant not “this person is a homophobe” but “this person is attempting to schism the church because other people think gay people are okay.”
The Episcopalian sexual ethics was described as follows:
This suggests that in evaluating a relationship we must ask which key components are present and whether they are expressed in ways appropriate to that relationship. Mutual regard, respect, and truthfulness are minimums for any relationship. Relationships that are more than fleeting ought also to involve responsibility, loyalty, accountability, attentiveness, and availability. Long-enduring relationships require commitment, fidelity, reciprocity, forgiveness, and generativity.
Which I actually feel is a statement I would cosign as a sex-positive atheist. (However, as far as I can tell from this book, Episcopalians seem to be down on casual sex; they seem to believe that sex is best saved for long-enduring relationships, which I do disagree with. Unfortunately, since the book was mostly about gayness, it did not enlighten me about the crux of our disagreement.)
One of the articles about Scripture brought up polygamy as an example of how the marriage that God approves of is culturally constructed, and I was about to comment on how surprisingly poly-accepting that was until I read the discussion questions and polygamy was listed next to slave marriage as something “we find repugnant in our own day.” Bleh.
The argument that gay marriage isn’t blasphemous, what’s really blasphemous is marrying couples who aren’t really Christian and just want a picturesque wedding, made me giggle.
The article from a South African had a definite air of “Notice how we were RIGHT about apartheid? Notice how we are, like, the only Anglican denomination to play a major role in a civil rights struggle in the last fifty years? Archbishop Desmond Tutu is awesome!” Large parts of it were devoted to passive-aggressively pointing out that nobody schismed the South African church over “some Anglicans engaged in human rights atrocities against black people” and thus Episcopalians can damn well accept that some people are performing gay marriages.
Disagreement: I am not a Christian.
Victoria: A Novel of Fourth Generation War: Recommended to me by an article in the American Conservative; apparently written by one of the intellectual leading lights of the alt-right. The premise of the novel is that America’s cultural Marxist infestation leads to its collapse and division into several subcountries. New England wounds up getting run by alt-righters and therefore is the Good Guy Country. The other regions of the US do not, and therefore have to be nobly righted by Our Hero The General Staff Person. To be clear, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
The author appears to very much overestimate the number of deep greens and radical feminists in the United States. Deep greens not only present a problem for the Northern Confederation (where they are summarily executed) but also wind up running Cascadia (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia). Radical feminists, conversely, wind up running California, where they ban all sex other than lesbianism and require schools to give women better grades for the same work. I am tempted to write a fanfic in which it is revealed that Our Hero The General Staff Person was extremely confused about everything and in fact California was run by queer theory people. The heterosexuality ban will be because heterosexuality is a social construct and clearly everyone could be gay if they wanted to; most people just decide they’re nonbinary and date as they would anyway. Also, the reason their military is so high-tech is that once they decided only women would run the military all of their military vets were trans women.
I mean, that’s still not great, but it’s at least slightly more plausible.
Muslims in this book are constantly crucifying Christians, which I am pretty sure does not happen? I admit I am not the most up-to-date about Muslim persecution of Christians, but skimming the Wikipedia page on the subject it mostly seems to be “Muslims had very good attitudes about religious freedom in the Middle Ages but have unfortunately kept the same attitudes while Christians were busy having the Enlightenment and thus it now seems really backwards,” which I don’t think implies they are going to crucify people. (I do, uh, appreciate (?) Saudi Arabia’s rules lawyering by declaring every citizen of Saudi Arabia to be Muslim and therefore all non-Muslim religious practice is apostasy.) I mean, Islamophobes are constantly calling people dhimmis, you’d think they know what that means.
Victoria is not exactly in favor of Nazis, but it is nowhere near as down on Nazis as I would generally hope people are. For instance, it is very strongly opposed to deep greens and to radical feminists, but the Nazis (who briefly run Wisconsin) are written as “well, we don’t LIKE concentration camps, but you certainly do have to admire their competence…” The hero’s mentor explains that he doesn’t want to help the Nazis not because he dislikes their anti-Semitism but because Nazis are far too modern.
I also find the racial politics interesting. There is exactly one Jewish character, who appears for one paragraph to assure the reader that he wants to join the Christian Marine Corps because he knows that “Christian” really refers to our shared Judeo-Christian values. The good black characters realize that in order to prevent the scourge of black-on-black crime all crimes committed by black people must be punished with hanging, and it must be illegal for black people to have children unless they are farmers. In general, this book has a strange tendency to trot out members of marginalized groups to explain that Insert Policy That Seems Kind Of Repressive Here is actually the best thing for them. (We also have a woman explaining that keeping a home is actually more important than the jobs people have outside the home. Personally, my feeling is that since keeping a home is such an important job we should free up men to do it if they want to too.)
I am informed by this book that getting the alt-right people to run everything means we will have very good trains, which is honestly giving me so much internal conflict.
Disagreement: Honestly, what DON’T I disagree with this book about?
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide: First of all, the title is a Mao quote. Seriously? A leader whose actions led to horrific human rights abuses and the death of tens of millions of people is not an appropriate source of pithy quotes. Hitler said “the frailest woman will become a heroine when the life of her own child is at stake”, so I assume that Kristof is going to write a book about children’s health next and call it The Frailest Woman.
Awful choice of title aside: Kristof’s book is an odd combination of good shit and bad shit. He talks about the importance of evidence and randomized controlled trials in choosing where to give, points out that poorly targeted aid can do more harm than good, and even name-checks Givewell. But his anecdotes feature multiple people who turned out to be frauds, like Somaly Mam and Greg Mortenson, and those are just the ones I recognize. He rarely gives statistics, preferring to list off a mind-numbing array of horrifying stories without giving any sense of how representative they are. When he does give statistics, they are often poorly contextualized; he presents as authoritative numbers which are estimates or simply made up. He talks about the importance of giving Westerners an opportunity to come to Africa and help (ugh) and praises multiple charities which he recognizes are ineffective for the good work they do improving the moral character of Americans (UUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH).
I find it striking that progressives try to ban loans offered to poor people at 20-30% interest in the United States, but in developing countries they’re so fond of them that they donate money to charity to allow the poor to get more of them. Like, surely either 30% interest is exploitative or it’s not. Anyway, I think microfinance sucks and people’s fondness for it is this bizarre Protestant work ethic shit, and you should give money to cash transfers instead.
The big disagreement I knew about going in was about sex work. Kristof supports the criminalization of sex work because he believes that sex work in developing countries is almost always coerced. His preferred charities teach women career skills other than sewing, despite the rejection of this form of charity by many sex workers in the developing world. He discusses the tragedy that ‘rescued’ girls return to sex work. He writes:
It’s enormously dispiriting for well-meaning aid workers who oversee a brothel raid to take the girls back to a shelter and give them food and medical care, only to see the girls climb over the back wall.
I have so many issues with this! Like, first of all, how come the people you’re helping can’t walk out the front door if they don’t want to be there? Why are you making people escape from you? Second of all, if the people you are helping are trying to escape from you, you have a Problem. I am not saying that this is necessarily a “they don’t want to be helped” problem– Kristof blames it on the women being addicted to drugs and afraid of their pimps, in which case it would probably be solvable with bodyguards and methadone– but you have a serious issue if the people you are trying to help are running away!
I think there’s a lot to be done with an intersectional feminist analysis of global poverty and health in the developing world, which comes from a strong background of skepticism, empiricism, and a desire for evidence. I really wish someone would write it. Half the Sky is, unfortunately, not that book.
Disagreement: I am neither a whorephobe nor an ineffective altruist.
The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will Eventually Feel Better: I thought I 100% disagreed with the great stagnation hypothesis, but I think I just kept arguing about it with idiots. Cowen makes a much stronger case in this book, including arguing with my “but the Internet?” objection. (The Internet is one technology, not many; it creates far fewer jobs than many other technologies, mostly relying on the free labor of its users.)
My one objection is that I would have appreciated it if this book were about ten times more rigorous. For instance, Cowen’s primary thesis– that there have been few technological innovations in the past few decades– is mostly justified by saying “look around you, my grandmother’s life changed remarkably due to technology, but my life has stayed pretty much the same in the last few decades.” While this might be true, I’d prefer a more careful examination of the rate of innovation with, like, numbers and stuff.
That said, it’s an interesting hypothesis and I’d appreciate a more rigorous discussion of it.
Disagreement: when I started this book I did not agree with the great stagnation hypothesis.