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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A few words about the Raytractors reading group I'd like to organize

Some people have been wondering what would happen to the Raytractors if Ray shut down his blog. I really don't think there is any chance of Ray shutting down his blog because I think he likes the attention too much and it would also mean giving up his favorite hobby, which is goading atheists. Anyway, one of the things that I had mentioned a few days ago was the possibility of creating a Raytractors reading group for the purpose of reading and discussing books as a group, or at least with partners. There seemed to be some interest in it, so I'd just like to reiterate that I'm still looking to get this off the ground.

In the meantime, I just closed the last page on Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience, A Personal View Of The Search For God. Wow, what a read. I actually enjoyed this more than Demon Haunted World, and I enjoyed DHW a LOT.

In Varieties, Sagan addresses a few issues and one of which is the issue of why, if there is a deity that created the world, did he leave so scarce evidence for his having created it. Very interesting read for those who are interested in such things from a scientific perspective. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on The God Hypothesis and The Religious Experience. I wasn't particularly compelled by the chapter on Extraterrestrial Folklore. I also wanted to share a couple of my favorite quotes from the chapter on The Religious Experience:

"The story of God's commandment to Abraham to kill his son, Issac, is an example of the transition from human to animal sacrifice. After a while people decided it really wasn't worthwhile killing their own children in this way; they would symbolically kill their own children just by getting a goat and killing it. In fact, the general decline in the practice of human and animal sacrifice in the evolution of religion is worth some attention. The Judaic and therefore also the Christian-Islamic religions began when human and animal sacrifice was all the rage.

What does that kind of propitiation mean? It is a wish for the course of nature to be different from what it otherwise would be. It provides the illusion that by some sequence of ritual actions we are able to influence forces of nature that are otherwise inaccessible to us. And therefore it involves a change from the usual course of nature, which was described very nicely by Ivan Turgenev as follows: "Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces itself to this: 'Great God, grant that twice two be not four.'" And from a different tradition, let me quote a Yiddish proverb, which goes, "If praying did any good, they would be hiring men to pray."

And another quote:

"We all grow up in the land of giants when we are very small and the adults are very large. And then, through a set of slow stages, we grow up, and we become one of the adults. But still within us, surely, is some part of our childhood that hasn't disappeared and hasn't grown up. It's just there. In your formative years, you then learn from direct experience, absolutely incontrovertible, that there are much larger, much older, much wiser, and much more powerful creatures in the universe than you. And your strongest emotional bonds are to them. And, among other things, they are sometimes angry with you, and then you have to work through the anger. And they ask you to do things that you may not want to do, and you must propitiate them, you must apologize, you must do a set of things. Now, how likely is it that after we are all grown up we've fully detached ourselves from this formative experience? Isn't it much more likely that there remains a part of us that is still in the practice of this kind of childhood dealing with parents and other adults? Could that have something to do with prayer specifically and with religious beliefs in general?"

Oh, and one more. He also quotes Dostoevsky. From The Brothers Karamazov:

"So long as a man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship."

I wanted to pick something short to read in the interim between now and starting volume 2 of In Search of Lost Time so I chose Zadig and L'Ingenu by Voltaire. If you have a copy yourself feel free to read along with me and discuss as you want. Hopefully, around the end of next week I'll start volume 2 of ISOLT and for those that are interested we can discuss it as we go along.


  1. I run a monthly atheist book club over at my blog, so perhaps we could join forces? We have quite a nice voting system for choosing books to read, we just need the people :)

  2. I have a copy of Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories somewhere. Voltaire's great. Candide was hilarious. I haven't gotten to The Varieties of Religious Experience yet, but if it's better than The Demon Haunted World, I need to get to it. I also have The Stuff of Thought by Stephen Pinker lying around as well. If the details get worked out, let me know.

  3. Adrian,

    That sounds fantastic! I'll stop by and check it out.

  4. Rufus,

    I loved Candide. I seriously hope I'm never an old woman with one buttock.

    I don't have The Stuff of Thought. If you've read it, what did you think of it?

  5. nonmagic:

    I haven't read The Stuff of Thought yet (man, I was I had Charly's reading speed after they operated on him in Flowers for Algernon), and it's been awhile since I read How the Mind Works, but I liked it. Pinker is great. If I get to The Stuff... soon I'll let you know. And one cheek is better than no cheek. After all, we live in the best of all possible worlds.

  6. that is I wish I had... freaking typos

  7. Jeez, can't we do a Harry Potter or something easy?


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