If you have read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion – and if not, why not? – then you will have encountered a crisp, authoritative and unmistakeably English account of the scientific case against assuming the existence of a god. If you have read Christopher Hitchens’ new God Is Not Great you will have been rewarded by a wonderfully erudite, distinctly transatlantic version of the political and logical case against organised religion. Now comes the third part of what we might (though probably shouldn’t) call the atheist trinity, the philosophical case against monotheism. This one comes, bien sûr, from France. It is Michel Onfray’s In Defence of Atheism, just published in the UK.
While Dawkins makes a strong case for why one doesn’t require a thorough grounding in theology to refute religious certainties (you don’t need to be an expert in fairyology to dispute the existence of fairies), and Hitchens draws on his acute observational skills and tireless globetrotting to report on the way “religion poisons everything” – from “Belfast to Beirut to Baghdad, and that’s without leaving the B’s”– Onfray takes another tack entirely. As befits his role as “France’s most popular philosopher” (is there another country in the world where these two words go together?), Onfray delves deep into the internal logic of the three monotheisms, performing what he calls “a pitiless historical reading of the three so-called holy books”. Nor is he alone in his battle: he enters the field backed by a gang of thinkers as bizarrely incongruous as the Dirty Dozen – Epicurus, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille and Jean Meslier, Baron d’Holbach and Michel Foucault, Jeremy Bentham and Freud.
more from The New Humanist here.
Ben Zimmer in the Oxford University Press blog:
In our last installment, I noted that the increasingly common spelling of minuscule as miniscule is not just your average typographical error: it makes sense in a new way, since the respelling brings the word into line with miniature, minimum, and a whole host of tiny terms using the mini- prefix. It might not be correct from an etymological standpoint, since the original word is historically related to minus instead of mini-, but most users of English don’t walk around with accurate, in-depth etymologies in their heads. (Sorry, Anatoly!) Rather, we’re constantly remaking the language by using the tools at our disposal, very often by comparing words and phrases to other ones we already know. If something in the lexicon seems a bit murky, we may try to make it clearer by bringing it into line with our familiar vocabulary. This is especially true with idioms, those quirky expressions that linger in the language despite not making much sense on a word-by-word basis.
Take the idiom free rein, meaning ‘freedom of action or expression.’ Our blog editor Becca Ford recently passed along the usage tip from Garner’s Modern American Usage, which advises that this is the correct form, not free reign. “The allusion is to horses, not to kings or queens,” Garner writes, “but some writers have apparently forgotten the allusion.”
None of my friends wanted to come with me to the mid-July heavy metal symposium at the New Art Gallery in Walsall. The promise of a Friday evening spent listening to lectures on such topics as the Brummie origins of Black Sabbath and the history of grindcore (the extreme offshoot of metal invented in the 1980s by Napalm Death, if you were wondering) failed to attract them, for some reason. They missed out. Four decades after the words “heavy metal” were first used by the rock critic Lester Bangs to describe Black Sabbath, the West Midlands is rightly celebrating its place as the epicentre of a cultural movement that has swept the globe.
Heavy metal has long been sneered at by music snobs for being resolutely proletarian, often aggressive, and obsessed with macabre, occult imagery. Over its 40-year history, however, it has achieved a level of worldwide ubiquity rivalled only by that of hip-hop.
more from The New Statesman here.
Back in the early ’80s, my dad returned from a trip to L.A. with a few artifacts he thought might interest me. His batting average in this regard was never great, but this time he had scored several strange cultural magazines, including a couple of recent issues of something called Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. Later I learned that this was the brainchild of the idiosyncratic architectural scholar (and co-founder of the early-’70s Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad trompe l’oeil muralist collective) Leonard Koren, but at the time, its peculiar mixture of chatty avant-garde cultural reportage alongside deadpan examinations of bathhouses, waterbeds and seltzer water (all wrapped in an impressive and influential post-punk graphic design) was pretty baffling.
Most unnerving was an account in the March-April 1981 issue, describing a performance-art piece by one John Duncan, who had bribed a Tijuana mortician to let him have sex with a female corpse, recording the act on audiotape. Afterward, he had gotten a vasectomy “so that the last potent seed I had,” he recounted, “was spent in a cadaver.” Blind Date immediately became a personal touchstone in sorting out what was possible in the name of Art.
more from the LA Weekly here.
Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker:
Just before the end of the past term, the Court issued a decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, that signalled a complete departure from more than half a century of jurisprudence on race. The case is called Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, and it addresses a legal challenge to two city school systems—Seattle’s and Louisville’s—for consciously trying to achieve racial integration in assigning students to particular schools. Roberts, in his decision, is almost reverential toward the last major Supreme Court decision on race, which in 2003 upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s use of race as a factor in admissions. But the thrust of his argument—“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”—makes it impossible to imagine that he would have joined the majority in the Michigan case had he been on the Court at the time.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who dissented in the Michigan case, wrote a concurring opinion in the Parents Involved decision that is far more confrontational than Roberts’s, and lays out once again his long-held view of race and the courts. We have a “color-blind Constitution,” he asserts, even though the Supreme Court refused to recognize this until its monumental, unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. The essence of Brown, Thomas believes, is an absolute prohibition on taking race into account for any reason. “What was wrong in 1954 cannot be right today,” he writes.
More here. [And also see 3QD’s own Michael Blim’s essay on the topic here.]
Anthony Kaufman in Seed Magazine:
If Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey met Michael Bay’s 1988 blowout blockbuster Armageddon, it might resemble Sunshine, a new beautifully crafted sci-fi adventure that’s as thought-provoking as it is thrilling. Created by the British filmmaking team of director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland (who made the smart zombie flick 28 Days Later), Sunshine imagines a near future when the sun is dying and a solar winter has enveloped the earth. To save humanity, an international crew aboard the aptly named Icarus II sets out towards the center of the solar system to deliver a nuclear device to re-ignite the sun.
Gaden S. Robinson looks at The Other Insect Societies by James T. Costa, in the Times Literary Supplement:
Earwigs make good mothers; but they are not the insects that spring immediately to mind when the phrases “social insects”, “insect sociality” or “parental care” are used. Our thoughts turn instead to the complex, caste-driven societies of the ants, bees, wasps and termites. These are the famous socialites with the good PR, the celebrities of the insect social world, the names in the Hello! magazines of entomology. In this extraordinarily thorough book, James T. Costa sets the record straight and rebalances our view of sociality in insects by dealing with the neglected also-rans. Thirty-five years ago, E. O. Wilson carefully segregated what he termed the eusocial insects, the celebrities, from the many, many other groups that exhibit what Wilson describes as more generalized sociality. Costa draws the same line.
Lavina Melwani in Little India, via New American Media, via Time to Blog:
Here’s a life-or-death test for you.
Pick up a tape measure. Wrap it around your waist at navel level.
If you’re an Indian woman and measure more than 32 inches or an Indian man over 35 inches, brace yourself.
Within the next 10 or 20 years you are almost certain to get diabetes or heart disease – or both.
You have the killer belly, a condition that specially afflicts Indians.
While heart disease declined 60 percent in the last 30 years in the United States, it has escalated by 300 percent in India. U.S. studies have found that Indians in the United States have three to four times the heart disease rate of the mainstream U.S. population.
From Yahoo! News:
Brian May is completing his doctorate in astrophysics, more than 30 years after he abandoned his studies to form the rock group Queen.
The 60-year-old guitarist and songwriter said he plans to submit his thesis, “Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud,” to supervisors at Imperial College London within the next two weeks.
May was an astrophysics student at Imperial College when Queen, which included Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor, was formed in 1970. He dropped his doctorate as the glam rock band became successful.
More here. [Thanks to Asad Raza–and congratulations to Brian!] Bonus video:
Bonobos are celebrated as peace-loving, matriarchal, and sexually liberated. Are they?
Ian Parker in The New Yorker:
In recent years, the bonobo has found a strange niche in the popular imagination, based largely on its reputation for peacefulness and promiscuity. The Washington Post recently described the species as copulating “incessantly”; the Times claimed that the bonobo “stands out from the chest-thumping masses as an example of amicability, sensitivity and, well, humaneness”; a PBS wildlife film began with the words “Where chimpanzees fight and murder, bonobos are peacemakers. And, unlike chimps, it’s not the bonobo males but the females who have the power.” The Kinsey Institute claims on its Web site that “every bonobo—female, male, infant, high or low status—seeks and responds to kisses.” And, in Los Angeles, a sex adviser named Susan Block promotes what she calls “The Bonobo Way” on public-access television. (In brief: “Pleasure eases pain; good sex defuses tension; love lessens violence; you can’t very well fight a war while you’re having an orgasm.”) In newspaper columns and on the Internet, bonobos are routinely described as creatures that shun violence and live in egalitarian or female-dominated communities; more rarely, they are said to avoid meat. These behaviors are thought to be somehow linked to their unquenchable sexual appetites, often expressed in the missionary position. And because the bonobo is the “closest relative” of humans, its comportment is said to instruct us in the fundamentals of human nature. To underscore the bonobo’s status as a signpost species—a guide to human virtue, or at least modern dating—it is said to walk upright.
Dan Lester and Giulio Varsi in The Space Review:
Human space exploration has traditionally been inspired by ultimate destinations beyond the Earth and designed to reach them efficiently and safely. Specifically, these destinations have been bodies in our solar system. This contribution to The Space Review proposes that, as we enter the 21st century and the sixth decade of modern space exploration, a fresh analysis be undertaken of the value of different classes of destinations—including specifically locations not characterized by solid materials (rocks, ices, “soils”) or gravity. We consider whether priorities of similar worth could then be pursued on the basis of the half-century of advances in technology and space exploration experiences. In many respects, free space destinations such as Earth and planetary orbits and, specifically, the Lagrange points may have more value than planetary surfaces for investigating certain important aspects of our place in the Universe. In what respects is this traditional focus on rocky surfaces and gravity strategically driven, and in what respects is it just moot repetition of the past? Certainly our national goals for space exploration involve more than just science. However, a large amount of the science we want to do in space has little need for surface locations and, in fact, would benefit by not relying on them at all.
Ted Widmer in the New York Times Magazine:
None of us can control our ancestors. Like our children, they have minds of their own and invariably refuse to do our bidding. Presidential ancestors are especially unruly — they are numerous and easily discovered, and they often act in ways unbecoming to the high station of their descendants.
Take George Bush. By whom I mean George Bush (1796-1859), first cousin of the president’s great-great-great-grandfather. It would be hard to find a more unlikely forebear. G.B. No. 1 was not exactly the black sheep of the family, to use a phrase the president likes to apply to himself. In fact, he was extremely distinguished, just not in ways that you might expect. Prof. George Bush was a bona fide New York intellectual: a dabbler in esoteric religions whose opinions were described as, yes, “liberal”; a journalist and an academic who was deeply conversant with the traditions of the Middle East.
There was a time when the W-less George Bush was the most prominent member of the family (he is the only Bush who made it into the mid-20th-century Dictionary of American Biography). A bookish child, he read so much that he frightened his parents.
From Interesting, Cool, Amazing Things: