Wednesday, May 02, 2012

National Day of Reason: 5 Reasonable Books to Read

With two young children, I don't get a ton of time to read. My library (both the Kindle library and the physical one) is growing much faster than I have any hope of keeping track of. Listening to the occasional TED talk or podcast helps keep me up to speed but, often as not, it just makes me ache for time to get into the meaty topics that I'm not able.

So, in honor of today, the National Day of Reason, I'd like to present the top five reason-themed books that I'd like to read next.

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion 
by Alain de Botton (Amazon, B&N)

This one's been sitting around waiting for me for a few months, ever since I saw Alain de Botton give a great TED talk and then listened to him on the Philosophy Bites podcast. This book seeks to engage religious thought in a more civil discourse than the slate of "new atheist" tirades that have come out in recent years.

His central thesis seems to be that far from being useless and backward, religions have developed a refined understanding of how human beings form communities, how they learn, and how they are motivated. Atheist and other secularists, in trying to avoid the negative trappings of religion, have also abandoned all of the good stuff that religion has gotten right.

This strongly resonates with my own life. Until about age 30, I had absolutely no interest in religion, except for the consideration of its historical role. However, just a few years back, I began attending church and found that it spoke to my personal needs in a way that was very unexpected ... by me as much, if not more, than anyone else. Who knew that religion could serve a functional purpose?

I can't wait to see if any of Alain de Botton's insights on the utility of religion mesh with my own life experience.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion 
by Jonathan Haidt (Amazon, B&N)

Following in the footsteps of the previous book, Jonathan Haidt also tries to understand both sides of the political and religious divide and foster communication instead of squashing it. He, too, gave a great TED talk (plus another one a few year back, actually) and also a Point of Inquiry podcast interview, regarding the central themes of his book.

It's an absolute truth about the human condition that we seem hard-wired to believe certain sorts of religious ideas ... but some people embrace this tendency and others fight against it. Haidt studies the causes for these differences and has found that liberals and conservatives (loosely defined) have different types of brains and embrace different sets of values to different degrees.

In this book, he has done his best to quantify those results in a way that's accessible to the general public. For example, conservatives value loyalty far more than liberals, while liberals are far more concerned with equality. Both groups care deeply about justice, though they define the concept in somewhat different terms, leading to significant disagreement about how to implement public policy.

These and similar findings seem like they may be crucial in really understanding the split in human thinking that causes so much conflict in the world.

The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas 
by Jonah Goldberg (Amazon, B&N)

I just learned about this book this morning, when I heard Goldberg interviewed on NPR. Though I didn't agree with all of his conclusions, I did enjoy reading Goldberg's previous book, Liberal Fascism (Amazon, B&N), so am very interested to read this one as well.

In this newest book, he seems to focus on how liberals use cliches to stifle debate ... and dissects what he sees as some of the more pervasive cliches. As the title suggests, he feels that this is cheating, and that the debate should take place to actually figure out which ideas win out. He lays the central idea out in the NPR interview:
"What you have often in American political discourse are appeals to cliches that steal territory, steal terrain unearned by argument. And all I want is an argument."
The book would no doubt be far better if it focused on how both sides of political discourse invoke cliches and catchphrases as a means of shutting down debate on an issue, stealing terrain that they haven't actually proven, but Goldberg is a conservative author so he seems to be focusing his arguments primarily at the left wing ... which is his prerogative, of course. As a conservative, he no doubt feels that the right wing has earned their terrain.

And, as he points out in the interview, he doesn't feel that the conservative catchphrases are taught in schools and universities with the same level of infallibility as the liberal ones. This is probably a pretty valid complaint, although ignoring the fact that they're taught at home and through repeated mantras on Fox News seems a bit disingenuous. I think there are a fair number of young conservatives who have received conservative cliches through osmosis over their lifetime.

I personally consider myself a centrist, but I do tend to agree more with the moral ideology of the left. Or, at least, I tend to disagree with it less. I consider left-wing ideology annoying and simplistic, but right-wing ideology is typically abhorrent to me, making me often stuck on the left wing by default. I'll be interested to see if I agree or disagree with Goldberg's dissection of the left's debate-killing cliches. The interview, at least, raised concerns that I agree with ... and which seem to be in line with promoting reason.

Irrelevant Note: On Barnes & Noble, the audiobook version of this is $72! What the hell is up with that? Does the audiobook involve Jonah Goldberg coming to your house to narrate the book in person?

Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All -- and What We Can Do About It 
by Sean Faircloth (Amazon, B&N)

Sean Faircloth is a former member of the Maine Legislature who has since become the director of strategy and policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He's also written a book about the disproportionate and unrelenting influence that religious people and movements have upon political candidates, officials, and campaigns.

Like several of the other books, I learned about this author when listening to a Point of Inquiry podcast, in which Faircloth discussed his book. The basic theme is that the role of government is to remain completely objective, staying out of religious matters entirely (or, at least, as much as it possibly can). Their role should be strictly to make sure that individuals are able to practice their religion without impediment from others, including the government itself ... not to actively facilitate any particular religion or religious approach.

Instead, religious officials have inserted themselves firmly into the political landscape to a degree that is damaging to the free exercise of political power. The population at large subsidizes religious activity on a massive scale through tax breaks that give religious work a place of priority over and above other sorts of similar charitable work, such as running a non-profit organization that serves community needs.

Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson 
by Jennifer Michael Hecht (Amazon, B&N)

This is an older book that has come up in my recommendations and which, frankly, I just can't pass up. I did look and it turns out the author also did a Point of Inquiry podcast interview, although this was a few years back when the book came out and I haven't listened to it. Still, the very notion of a historical look at the phenomenon of doubt seems intimately appealing to me.

It seems to me that doubt is one of the most important motivators of progress in our history. You cannot move forward if you aren't willing to question authority and that is, ultimately, the central component of doubt. Doubt is the foundation of any application of reason, so understanding it is crucial.

Other books of interest:

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