Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Flying And Blogging

I’m actually writing this from the window seat of Porter Airlines Flight 250, flying from Halifax to Toronto via Ottawa. Porter is a relatively new airline which flies from Toronto’s City Centre Airport which makes it ridiculously more convenient than any of our other airlines for someone like me making a quick journey to Ontario. If you’ve ever flown into Toronto, you’ll know that Lester B. Pearson International Airport is massive, insanely busy, and conveniently located a long way from the city without much for public transportation connections. That’s being improved. But it’s not there yet. By contrast, Porter lands a short ferry and shuttle bus ride from downtown Toronto and Union Station. And it’s all business class basically, for only a small premium over other carriers.

Flying gives me the relatively rare privilege of actually reading a newspaper, something I don’t do much since I have an iPhone that feeds me news from all over the world. With no interwebs in the skies (not here anyhow), I’m sent back to this quaint but effective old fashioned means of communication.

Both today’s Globe & Mail and Chronicle Herald are running pieces about the G8 summit that wrapped up in Halifax this week. At the centre of the story is the decision by Canada’s increasing lackluster government that foreign aid focused on maternal health should not – will not – include funding for abortions. This is a laughably hypocritical position in a country where free access to abortion is the law, and an issue no sane politician would ever try to touch. The idea of trying to deny that access to safe abortions is vital to maternal health to me is absolutely nonsense, though it seems in Parliament to be divisive as well as among Canadians.

The most interesting piece I’ve seen is Judith Timson’s in today’s G&M. She makes a pretty decent proposition about a sort of neo-colonialism that’s unfolding through foreign aid – both by governments and NGOs. The insidious example of evangelical organizations like the so-called “C Street Family” supporting draconian and disgusting persecution of homosexuals in Uganda comes to mind immediately.

It starts to look like where the religious right cannot succeed in their home countries they feel they should try in other countries. I saw this in the much vaunted PEPFAR nonsense – Bush’s huge gift to fighting AIDS in Africa which was mainly a subsidy to pharmaceutical manufacturers and a sort of patronage system for evangelical organizations. Their anti-AIDS efforts focused around the ridiculous “abstinence-only” education idea, and the foolhardy idea that condoms were really only necessary for truckers and prostitutes. Great education that is.

Timson also points out that what should have been a pretty simple political undertaking has basically been turned into a circus because of Canada’s position which is totally out of step with the rest of the world. While they repeated make the statement (correctly) that Canadians have no interest in any sort of debate about abortion, they seem to bumble into these sorts of gaffes often.

I really shouldn’t be surprised by this. The poisonous influence of evangelical nutcases on the Conservative Party of Canada is one of the most important reasons I tore up my membership card and stopped supporting them. The presence of people who want to inject government sanction into social issues in which government ought not to have a role is not something I’d go for.

While this scenario is I guess nothing new, the fact that it makes Harper and his ministers like Bev Oda look like fools as they struggle to answer questions about the government’s positions might hopefully force the Conservatives to realize that it is only the total ineptitude of the official opposition that keeps them in office, and that they perhaps should focus on less incendiary issues.

Landing in Ottawa just as I finish this so I can post it, perhaps another post between Ottawa & Toronto?

On Morals, On Hypocrites, On Hyperbole, On History

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything but life tends to get in the way and I will happily say that I pay far more attention to things actually going on around me than I do to blogging. Notwithstanding that obvious fact, I’ve still be keeping an eye southward on politics and never seem to shy away from other debates.

I’ve been pondering a lot about the canard that a lot of religious nutters have been throwing around lately. A favourite theme that some of these people resort to is the suggestion that those without religion have “no purpose”, or more laughably, that we have no accountability or consequence for our actions thus no moral compass or sense of right and wrong.

I’m constantly amazed that there are people that actually believe this.

In the post about The God Delusion I talked a bit about the studies cited by Dawkins that the idea of morals exists in the animal kingdom, and it appears to exist independent of religion. It seems, however, in the mind of some religious people that social norms are meaningless and only the idea of some form of eternal reckoning is necessary to enforce good behaviour. This, to me, is obviously quite ridiculous.

I got to thinking more about this because of the nature of my day job. I work in a much-maligned industry and sadly there are ample reasons for it to be maligned. There are plenty of people who call themselves financial planners or advisors who are essentially nothing but crooks – many more who offer advice that often benefits them more than their clients. The joke in the industry about one major firm in Canada is that their sales force should say, “We’ll take your money and my experience, and turn it into my money and your experience.”. It’s sad but true.

Now, those folks aren’t really crooks. They sell products that are expensive and unnecessary (and I make my living in many cases extracting people from such arrangements!) but there are also crooks out there. Everyone knows Bernie Madoff. Many Canadians will be familiar with the name Earl Jones as well, but there are a myriad of conmen disguised as financial advisors whose crimes are much smaller scale but as devastating to victims.

What’s fascinating is that in many of these cases, the fraud succeeds because the con artist can make use of some manner of affinity group. And quite often that group involves a religious organization in some way.

The reason for this is rather simple. When one assumes a person has similar religious convictions to you it is easier to trust them and perhaps to ask fewer questions. The perception of someone being a person of faith seems likely to make one less likely to question them on their motives. I saw this in the case of a fraudster in a town where I started in my business. Just as I got out of school the fraud began to unravel and many people realized that they had lost their life savings to a man who was a soccer coach, a contributor to their churches, by all appearances an upstanding successful citizen.

This particular fraud, perpetrated by a man called Andrew Lech, spread into other communities through churches. An unwitting accomplice in Ohio collected some $3 million alone from a church, part of some $20 million that US investors poured into the $100 million ponzi scheme.

Ain’t it strange how that superior moral compass works?

All this to start on the idea of this accountability and purpose kick. The claim made be some of these people is that I can have no purpose or impact or value in life as I am merely the product of chance and biology, or some nonsense of that nature. Yes, more than one person has made this claim to me.

Ultimately the whole existence of the universe seems to be just that sort or random event and the idea that I or anyone else is any different strikes me as being laughable and arrogant all at once. I always hear from religious types that “god has a plan for them”, which is I guess some way of trying to rationalize their existence and they seem unable to fathom that to me there is no need to do so. Whether I’m part of some scheme far larger than I can imagine is really of no consequence to me. Why should it be? Why engage in a rather foolish debate about free will and predestination and so on?

(This, incidentally, is why I find the outrage of religious political nuts so funny – if an omnipotent deity has some big “plan” and is “in control”, why are you outraged by it?)

I guess they need to give themselves some sense of purpose or relevance in their life and for some people I guess the drudgery of reality just doesn’t suffice. It is some manner of trying to give meaning and reminds me of the Epic of Gilgamesh – a Sumerian epic which I studied in high school. It is in fact the story from which some believe the story of Noah and the great flood were plagarized.

Gilgamesh’s quest is to find immortality, to “have his name stamped on brick”. His quest is ultimately fruitless, but the dramatic irony is that he has a form of immortality insofar as we still read the story thousands of years later. He realized his wish just not in the manner intended. So too have many in history by the impact they have had on society.

So, if this is disjoint I apologize, I started writing stream of conscience and got distracted so I’m trying to reset myself into that train of thought. Accountability is the big claim that religious folks (some of them, that is) make about their god. They claim that divine retribution is what makes people good and that being an atheist means I’m accountable to no one and thus have no reason to be a good person. This, obviously, is complete nonsense. The fact that religious people do things wrong is fairly strong evidence that divine accountability isn’t all that compelling. I would suspect that just as for atheists it is accountability to society that actually matters. We expect certain standards of behaviour and have devised systems of consequences to enforce those standards. Those penalties are far more real than eternal damnation nonsense.

What is clear is that gods don’t make people good (just ask the Catholic Church), and thus one can be good without god. Religion is not an absolute source of morality nor a guarantee of it as much as many people would claim, particularly when religious folks are as apt to ignore their rules as anyone else.

Why don’t I take advantage of the people I see very able to charm and build rapport with in my day job? Why don’t I exploit them for their vulnerability and wealth? Some of those who would attack me as an atheist seem to think that without divine retribution I’d have no reason to be honest and moral. They are of course totally wrong. I’m honest by nature and if I got any interest in being otherwise I have my reputation to lose, consequences to society, and so on. Not only would I pay my family would. Like Gilgamesh, like Bernie Madoff I’d gain immortality but not in any way like I might want to.

Another Winner From TwiceRight.

These guys are just geniuses.  I love them.  No other blog seems to make itself so apparently attractive to me with its fill of misinformation and utter nonsense.  I’m sure there are far, far worse out there, but this one, I guess since they followed me on Twitter and I wound up checking out who they were, just draws me in. 

I read the blog mainly to shake my head in sheer shock of how stupid some people are.  It’s kind of like the description of an Army officer in a performance appraisal I read one – “his men would follow him anywhere – but only to see what he’d do next!”  Anyhow, here’s the piece I’m most staggered by.  President Sarkozy claiming that President Obama is insane.  Why, wonders Alex, hasn’t the left media picked up on this?   (As an aside, what’s this “left media” anyhow?).

Well, the short answer is that it’s probably not even remotely true.  Let’s take a look at the source of this claim.  It may look familiar as I’ve blogged about it before.  It’s the “European Union Times”.  If you’re an ignorant right winger it might sound like some sort of newspaper, a legitimate news source about the European Union.  You would, of course, be totally wrong.  This is the blog that also reported in an article titled “Prepare For Rebellion, Obama Orders US-Canadian Troops” that President Obama had asked for and NATO had “authorized an ‘emergency request’ from President Obama to utilize American and Canadian NATO troops to put down what is expected to be a “rebellion” after the expected January, 2010 ‘declaration of bankruptcy’ by the State of California.”  The article goes on to cite reports from major outlets like the Pembroke Daily Observer(!), noting “confirming the mass movement of military supplies and thousands of Canadian Special Forces Troops to California from the Canadian Forces Base of Petawawa to join their American military counterparts”.

These “thousands” weren’t special forces – they were the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, headed to Fort Irwin to conduct workup training for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.  How 2800 Canadian soldiers, over whom President Obama has no authority, would put down a rebellion that wasn’t actually remotely likely in a state of 30 million or so people is left to the imagination of the reader, who judging by the content of the blog is probably a survivalist white supremacist who’s more than a little paranoid to begin with.  Your clues to this is the “European Pride” links on the blog and the “survival” part.  White supremacists tend to use pride in their “nordic” or “northern European” heritage as a way to soften what they are.

Now, to their credit, the last paragraph of the article concedes the apparently silliness of the very post, when Alex says, “If what the site is saying is true (it’s said some weird stuff in the past)…”  He rants about his hatred of liberals but that’s immaterial to the point I have.  When you realize that your source is probably not even remotely credible, you probably should realize that publishing the entry probably isn’t necessary.  Like the previous post of theirs I attacked, it probably should have just been deleted rather than sent out into the intertubes.

On Afghanistan

Afghanistan is making a lot of news again, and I figured it’s probably time to put something on the blog about it. Primarily, there’s the whole detainee scandal, something I’m not going to get into too much. I don’t really know enough about it, and the investigation is ongoing, and so I’m not going to speculate on it. I don’t think anyone is blaming soldiers for anything that happened, since it seems like they were the ones raising concerns more than anything else. I’m sure it’ll all become clearer.

However, the other thing about Afghanistan that’s making news I will comment on. Canadians, by and large, remain totally ignorant of how we wound up in Afghanistan in the first place, who sent us for what and when and all that jazz. Unlike any previous expeditionary military operation this country has undertaken to the best of my knowledge, we have a time-certain pull-out date in Afghanistan: come 2011 by will of Parliament, we’re packing up and going home, regardless of what the situation at the time is. So this blog post will take the form of a little bit of disclosure, a brief history lesson, and my take.

So, first, disclosures. I’m an Army Reserve officer, but I only ever blog as a private citizen. Nothing I say reflects any sort of official policy, I’m not going to even hazard a guess at what the brass thinks of anything. All I’ll write is what I’ve observed. Most importantly, I have not served in Afghanistan. That’s not for lack of trying, though. I’ve actually volunteered to go twice. The first time I was missing a trade course component (and I knew that, but I tried to get a waiver for on-the-job training, and it didn’t work). The second time, I was apparently selected to go, I started all the pre-deployment nonsense (what’s called “DAG”) – I DAG’d green (good to go), and was expecting to be heading to Petawawa to join the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, which was forming Task Force 1-10 deploying to Afghanistan – well – this week or so. Just before I was supposed to show up in Petawawa in September I learned, along with about 40 other officers, that the positions we were supposed to fill didn’t exist. Adding insult to injury, I’d dragged my heels on applying to another position thinking I already was going on tour – and missed a second shot at going as a result. I challenge you to imagine the frustration of getting your life in order to be away from home for over a year, pissing off your civilian employer who resents you going (and more, that’s a whole other story), being all set to go, and finding out at the last minute that it’s not actually happening. I was a pretty bitter person, that’s for sure.

I’ve lost friends in Afghanistan. Last winter in particular, on December 5, a very good friend of mine, my former platoon signaller, Corporal Mark “Chinaman” McLaren, was killed there. He wasn’t the first person I’d been acquainted with to die there. I went through basic with Corporal Glen Arnold’s brother Lance. I was awed and inspired Chief Warrant Officer Robert Girouard, the Regimental Sergeant Major of 1RCR, who terrified me as a CSM at the Infantry School but then came to visit me in the hospital when I got injured on course. I knoew Cpl Jordan Anderson through his online persona on a Canadian military website only, but found him to be an incredibly insightful young man. His favourite quote was “Often I have regretted my silence, never my speech.” I had met Capt Matt Dawe a couple times and worked with his brother for a while as well. The Canadian Army, after all, is a small one – we all seem to know everyone, or know of them, or know someone who knows them.

When Mark died it hit me pretty hard. It was his second tour in Afghanistan. On the first tour, he was wounded by shrapnel when his position was strafed by a US A-10A Warthog who mistook them for Taliban. The driver of his LAV-III, Cpl Mark Graham, was killed, and some 31 men were wounded. Mark took some shrapnel and was medevac’d to the Role 3 at Kandahar Airfield, patched up, and returned to duty. He showed off his scars when he got home, and was very proud to have been one of the now somewhat infamous “Crazy Eights” – 8 Platoon, Charles Company, The 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment. The Crazy Eights were apparently always in the shit, their unofficial unit patch by the end of their tour was an eight-ball.

After he got home, Mark did what many expected – he transferred from the Reserve to the Regular Force, joining 1RCR. He soon started workup training for his second tour, his last one. I remember that I signed a letter of recommendation for him to go on his first tour, and a letter of recommendation for him to transfer. He was a tremendous soldier and I was proud to see him go. I even talked to him through Facebook Chat a couple times when he was over there. The morning of the 5th, I had called in sick when the phone ran, and a Master Corporal from my Regiment gave me the news that he had been killed. I stood on the ramp, in the freezing cold, a couple of days later when a C-17 unloaded his casket along with Private Demetrios Diplaros and Warrant Officer Robert Wilson. They were casualties 98, 99, and 100. We felt a relief of sorts that there wasn’t one single person who was “number 100”. The following week, I stood at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa while he was interred, again on a freezing cold day. It was not an experience I’d like to repeat.

That’s my story. I have countless friends who’ve served in Afghanistan, on various tours, and in various positions. It is from the discussions I’ve had with them about my own plans to deploy and about their observations that I draw most of my opinions on the subject. It’s from there I’ll depart once I cover the history piece.

Canada first sent soldiers to Afghanistan in 2001, a tiny cadre of special forces, followed by a battle group, built around the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, which deployed to Kandahar Airfield starting in January 2002. This first deployment (“Roto 0”) was a full-bore combat operation. We took our first combat KIAs on April 18, 2002, when two USAF pilots bombed a Canadian range practice in the Tarnak Farms complex, killing four Patricias and wounding several more. It ended those pilots’ careers, and was an inexcusable act, but that’s fodder for some other blog – or you can just read the books on it.

After the Patricias finished their tour (Operation Apollo), 3RCR sent a Battle Group, this time to Kabul, where they began Operation Athena. Kabul was quieter, safer. There, Canada commanded the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led force which seeks to provide training support to the Afghan National Security Forces and to facilitate redevelopment of the country, in terms in governance, economy, etc. Kabul was relatively quiet, though the first RCR casualties were big news and generated much controversy about the CF’s old, open-top, totally unarmoured Iltis “jeeps”, and started the process of buying new vehicles like Mercedes-Benz G-Wagens which were then later also declared unsuitable for use there, and replaced.

In 2005, Liberal Defence Minister announced that Canadian Forces would be moving to Kandahar. In what was called his “bodybag tour”, he warned Canadians that we were headed to do a lot of heavy lifting in southern Afghanistan, and it was going to be dangerous and deadly. He was not understating things. The Canadian base at Camp Julien was packed up and the force moved south to Kandahar, establishing its main base at KAF, and a Provincial Reconstruction Team base at Camp Nathan Smith (named after one of the friendly fire incident victims) in Kandahar City.

This is where the history gets screwy. When Op Athena ended and Op Archer started, and Canadian troops went back to combat operations, and casualties followed. The thing is, around the same time, the Liberal government of Paul Martin was defeated by the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper. To this day, many Canadians have the erroneous belief that it was Harper’s decision to send Canadians into full-scale combat operations again. This is totally, utterly false. Often conflated with this is the idea that charismatic General Rick Hillier somehow decided that Canadians were going to fight. While Hillier had an advisory role, these folks need to understand that soldiers in this country do not make policy. Politicians do. That’s why in Canada members of the armed forces are prohibited from seeking or holding public office, to ensure civil control of the military. The reality is that it was politicians – Liberal politicians – that made the decisions and bear the responsibility.

Debate over the involvement in Afghanistan was intensive during subsequent election campaigns as Harper sought to maintain his tenuous minority government. In September 2008, he made the rather bizarre statement that Canada would end its operations in 2011. Funny enough, all parties seized on this, including the ridiculous and comical Stephane Dion, who basically ensured the Liberals’ defeat for being arguably the most inept political candidate I’ve ever seem.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think there’s any other Canadian deployment that’s had an end date established three years out – certainly not an operation as intense as Afghanistan. Now we’re getting close, and there’s been a resurgence in debate, in part fuelled by a Canadian Press story on the remarks of a number of families who were in Kandahar on the Easter weekend on a sort of pilgrimage to see where their sons fell. They were there under a scarcely publicized program that’s been around for quite a while. Included in that group was the family of Mark McLaren, though they made no reported public statements. Those statements suggested that Canada should stay the course in Afghanistan – that they should see the mission through and so on. It seems there’s a small swelling of calls to reopen the debate, to determine what should happen in 2011. Much has changed since 2008. The Americans have made a major recommitment to Afghanistan after all but abandoning it to launch their disastrous and unnecessary invasion of Iraq, and they are learning counterinsurgency very rapidy. President Obama seems to be quite committed to achieving success in Afghanistan, and if he provides the leadership then it may just work.

I can say that amongst most of ot the people I know who’ve been there, the opinion is that we should stay – that we need to stay – because there’s been progress. It’s been slow, costly, difficult, dirty, dangerous – but it has happened. Particularly with those who have multiple tours, they report progress and a strong desire to return, almost unanimously. I know some people who don’t share the sentiment, a good friend of mine told me not to go, it wasn’t worth it, and I know of a few other veterans who had similar sentiments, that they were engaged in a deadly Sisyphean task.

Overall, I think that if there’s still signs of progress, which seems to be the case despite the many challenges Afghanistan faces, then we have got to stay. The key is to really focus on the counterinsurgency (COIN) effort – because what any of the people involved in the development effort will tell you is that the best way to keep the fighting-age males from picking up weapons and fighting is to give them better alternatives and jobs. The trick is in a country with no real infrastructure, no education, and no history of effective national government, it’s not going to be easy. Afghanistan will take a generation to fix – a generation of children need to grow up, get educated, and live without war to really build the country. That’s a big commitment.

The counterpoint though is that the burn rate for the Canadian Forces is huge. Equipment wears out very quickly there, and more importantly, troops wear out. The toll of long, dangerous deployments is becoming clear. That coupled with the economic realities facing Canada – being back into deficit and all – makes a pullout very attractive. In the end, I don’t really know just how much good we can do in Afghanistan. Canadians like to cling to a cultural myth about peacekeeping, gleefully bragging abroad that we invented it. It’s so burned into our culture by brilliant propaganda, that peacekeepers even feature on the Canadian $10 bill. When I hear people talking about it, I ask them for examples of success in peacekeeping. Other than its early success defusing tensions in proxy wars (like UNEF), blue berets don’t really have a history of success. They failed in Rwanda. They failed in Somalia. They failed in the Balkans. It wasn’t until more robust mandate-bearing forces showed up that anything happened in the Former Yugoslavia, for example.

Notwithstanding this it seems like a lot of Canadians feel like we’ve done more than our share in Afghanistan, and that there might be somewhere else we can do more. I don’t know that I believe that. Part of this is fuelled amongst extremists by a view that there’s some evil conspiracy behind being in Afghanistan, a conspiracy usually running around oil (Afghanistan has none) or gas pipelines – something that could happen, but wouldn’t actually be all that strategically important for the US as some would allege.

I don’t totally disagree with the idea advanced by some that Canada’s military needs a rest – to suck back, re-equip, train up new leaders, recruit new people to fill the gaps, and that sort of thing. Whether that’s going to be something that will mean we have to end any major expeditionary operations, I’m not quite sure. That’d be one of those things about which I’m not going to speculate.

In all, I think there needs to be a good Parliamentary debate. For that to happen, the detainee issue needs to be dealt with, preferably in the form of a public inquiry, but a swift one – it at least needs to be underway. Then we need to really engage Canadians both in getting educated about Afghanistan and what’s going there, and what the real costs and benefits could be. Of course, this is only going to work in my fantasy land where everyone actually reads the news and has some idea of what’s going on, rather than just braying like ignorant sheep, so I’m not sure it’ll actually work. I can hope, though.

I can say this – if we do extend our commitment there, I will not hesitate to step forward again to take my place in the line. It is, after all, what I joined up for.

A Pair Of Delusions

I just finished reading two related books – Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Alistair McGrath’s reply The Dawkins Delusion. I figured it would be more valuable to put together a joint review. Both books were interesting reads and obviously related.

The God Delusion is the second Dawkins book I’ve read, and I’m going to go back to the start and read The Selfish Gene next. The title fairly clearly suggests the nature of the book. It’s a fairly strong polemic against religion, and one that Dawkins states rather clearly has the intent of having someone who believes in gods reading it be convinced to abandon that belief by the end. To that end the book includes contact information for a variety of groups and organizations who can support those who are escaping religion. He shares some stories which resonate well as to why this might be necessary for someone raised in a strongly religious family, social group, etc.

The God Delusion differs from the other Dawkins book I’ve read so far – The Greatest Show On Earth, which is a work on the scientific case for evolution. Dawkins does take some strong shots at fundamentalist ideas and creationism, particularly at “intelligent design”, the laughably inept effort to make creationism look like science, but in all Greatest Show is mostly focused on fact. The God Delusion is much more broadly polemic and while it does work in some science it seems mainly aimed at taking strong jabs at religion.

The book is well organized, explaining the case for God, the case against, and then delving into the justifications for religion, particularly in the sphere of moral values. The argument is fairly strongly that you don’t need gods to be good, that humans have morality without religion, and that this can be observed in other species to varying degrees.

This then is used to propose what a world without gods might be like, using the favoured argument among many atheists that so much violence in the world traces its root to religious clashes or is organized in religious terms. Consider, for example, Northern Ireland. Religious differences underpin the violence there and Dawkins argues that if children were raised without religion the label that creates sides in the argument would disappear within a generation. Is that correct? To an extent, I would think so – given that religious identity links people to their “side”. There aren’t many Catholic loyalists nor many Protestant nationalists I don’t think. However, to suggest that nationalist or loyalist ideas will disappear when religion is removed might be a bridge too far.

One of the more interesting albeit brief discussions Dawkins creates is about the place of the Bible in literature and education. Some might be surprised to know that Dawkins doesn’t argue that the Bible should be removed from education because it underpins so much literature. He seems to take the view I do that the Bible is largely a fictional story plagarized extensively, and should be rejected as a basis for beliefs or as history, but that it can’t simply be excluded from study because it’s figured into much literature. One should learn about it just in the context of what it is, though – a book. A curious book indeed – but a book.

His last chapter deals primarily with indoctrination of children into religion, something he and many other atheists consider to be one of the main dangers of religion. Dawkins attributes his own atheist persuasion to being taught by his parents how to think rather than what to think. His argument is that children must be given the ability to explore whatever views of the world they might choose to and when they are able to decide on beliefs then that’s fine. He couples this view with the view that this would be a good tonic against religion because he believes no critical thinker could ever conclude religion to be reasonable. This is what McGrath argues well, but we’ll get to that later.

The big problem I see with this book – and it’s the same as McGrath sees, is that Dawkins basically moves away from science into a broad-based attack on religion in general, and while I cheered at much of it I began to realize that he wasn’t really making the most solid of arguments. His effort in exploring the Bible as a moral guide is good, generally, but I found that Christopher Hitchens was much more effective at doing so in his “God Is Not Great”.

Some of the more interesting stories in the book concern things like the origins of “cargo cults” in the South Pacific with which I wasn’t previously familiar, as a means of explaining origins of religions. They are rather fascinating. Dawkins tries to get into sociological and psychological arguments but admits they aren’t his domain before doing much in depth with them, but nevertheless presents some studies on moral and ethical dilemmas to show religion isn’t the source of our willingness to be good. He defers to many other authors on the subject though, recommending many books.

McGrath’s challenge to Dawkins in his book, The Dawkins Delusion? is built around showing that the black and white distinctions Dawkins relies on are not realistic, and I share this assertion. There is a great difference between the average person who has some religious belief and the fundamentalist nutcases that Dawkins really wants to attack. Dawkins doesn’t really comment on the difference in his book save to suggest in some cases that those in the middle claim their beliefs for social expediency. At least that’s how I interpreted what he said. He presented the case of Freeman Dyson winning the Templeton Prize as an example of this. McGrath recounts being appalled at the way Dawkins described Dyson.

McGrath’s book makes the case that Dawkins’ claim that scientists are overwhelmingly athesits is absurb and incorrect and delves into the NOMA argument first. That’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria, a concept proposed by Steven Jay Gould which states that science and religion shouldn’t be seen as being in conflict because in fact the are two separate domains of teaching to begin with. Google Non-Overlapping Magisteria and you’ll be able to find Gould’s 1997 paper on the subject, it’s an interesting read.

Dawkins considers NOMA absurb, and to an extent I do too. The absurdity comes from the idea that religion cannot keep from overlapping because they make claims about existence, and thus origins, and that means overlapping science whether they like it or not. On this I agree though McGrath fleshes out an idea of “partially-overlapping magisteria” which suggests that religious exploration of science is not a threat to science.

McGrath’s main tack on the book is to attack many of Darwin’s claims as being superficial, or misrepresenting arguments for god as proofs (in particular Thomas Aquinas’ proofs that he argues were never claimed as absolute proofs.) He presents a case that Dawkins is actually undermining science by writing the book and presenting it as he did, claiming that it mischaracterizes theological arguments and is thus inaccurate.

McGrath, however, is quite tolerable because he sides with Dawkins on many issues, not least that the ideas of creationism are ludicrous and that their use of logical fallacies undermines them. He points to Gould a lot and how Catholicism sees no inherent conflict between evolution for example and their religion and has sought to reconcile some points – this is his POMA idea. Dawkins dismisses the idea as laughable though, something I’ll explore in another post perhaps as I have some ideas on the subject.

He also takes issue with Dawkins’ characterization of God based the recap of both the God of the Old Testament and New. Dawkins excoriates the Bible rather thoroughly in demonstrating how much it is not a moral guidebook, and I agree. McGrath tries to put some of the arguments into a cultural context about how cultural ideas have shifted, but I can’t help but wonder how he makes the case that this supports religion. Dawkins makes a good point that moral ideas presented in the Bible are absurb and brutal and totally unacceptable by modern standards and McGrath essentially claims no one believes in “that” God. I think that’s what most atheists see as the most convincing proof of the uselessness of religion, that it’s based on beliefs totally created to adjusted to make them more palatable to modern society with no real basis to do so.

Finally I’ll cover one interesting term raised in both books, the idea of fundamentalism. Dawkins points to fundamentalism as dangerous and particularly deluded. He highlights that it allows people to reject conflicting evidence out of hand as they do when it comes to evolution. He argues scientists are different, that if evidence appears to challenge the science of evolution for example, it would have to be accepted and would potentially undermine the theory. This is quite true and it’s why creationism goes nowhere. They have failed to produce any evidence to support their ideas. If they did, science would consider it.

McGrath makes the claim that Dawkins is unwilling to consider this and that his book proves it, and refers to him as a fundamentalist atheist. He claims that religion welcomes introspection as science does, which might be true, but Dawkins argues that it isn’t among many religions.

Overall I found both books worth reading. Dawkins is obviously most concerned with targetting those being lured into fundamentalist nonsense, but does so perhaps at the expense of pushing away moderates. McGrath doesn’t so much refute Dawkins as give some more depth to the conversation. There is apparently video available of them debating and also an interview that wound up on the cutting room floor that was done for Dawkins’ series The Root Of All Evil. Both I plan to seek out.