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Ch. 4 - Some minds on religion 
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Post Ch. 4 - Some minds on religion
Please discuss Ch. 4 - Some minds on religion within this thread. ::115




Wed Jul 25, 2007 11:01 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Some minds on religion
Author's note:

This chapter talks about the impact of religious ideas on some minds. Does religion produce a mind-set that lends itself to manipulation and extremes of behavior? While most religionists don't fall victim to the extremes discussed in this chapter, is it not the case that the bad thinking induced in some minds by religious impulses can drive out the good? Should that have implications for our approach to religions in general?

George

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"Godlessness is not about denying the existence of nonsensical beings. It is the starting point for living life without them."

Godless in America by George A. Ricker




Sat Aug 11, 2007 10:09 am
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Post Chapter Four: Some Minds on Religion
1. The claim that some evils absolutely depend on religion is historically dubious. One need only point to the terrorist activities of atheist anarchists, particularly in Revolutionary Russia and post-World War II Eastern Europe, the latter of which is harder to dismiss as an example of quasi-religious communist ideology. It's also notable that most of the examples of religious extremism that you've cited have a heavy political component. Before anyone accuses me of attempting to exonerate religion altogether, there have been plenty of examples of people performing atrocities in the name of religion without any apparant political connection. But the fact that political ideology plays such a prominant role in so many of what we take as instances of religious violence, added to the fact that the same sorts of violence have been perpetrated by staunch atheists, both with and without an overt political connection, ought to be sufficient to dispel the notion that religion fosters a sort of immorality that would not exist without it.

The two examples of infanticide you mention are almost certainly indicative of mental illness, so I find them difficult to take seriously as a critique of religion. Religion has obviously shaped the content of the delusions suffered by the two women, but the biological nature of mental illness makes it almost certain that they would have had some form of violent delusion anyway. These women were, in all likelihood, a mortal threat to their children with or without religion. Likewise, while you did not cite the example of two brothers, one a pastor of some Protestant congregation, who beat a child with heavy branches several years ago, I think it's worth noting if only to suggest that the same principle applies. Given the story as it was reported, I see no particular reason to suppose that the brothers woul qualify as mentally ill or impaired, but there does seem to have been a sadistic impulse independent of any involvement they had in religion. All three of these examples seem to illustrate the principle that the religious component in many instances of bizarre violence often serves to obscure to the casual observer the fact that other factors -- many genetic or otherwise biological -- would serve to make violence a part of the assailant's constitution regardless of their religious background.

Specific case studies have even suggested that many already troubled people turn to religion as a means of moderating their impulses. That's a problematic phenomenon: while many of them do have initial successes, and while some of the less troubled may effectively suspend their troubling impulses indefinitely, those for whom the impulses are ultimately overwhelming are usually only delaying a more overt manifestation. In the meantime, they can be embroiling themselves in circumstances that only complicate the situation. In some significant portion of cases of child molestation among Catholic priests, for example, the offenders were men who joined the priesthood in part as a way of controlling homosexual and pedophiliac impulses. (Incidentally, let me clear that I'm not calling homosexuality immoral or indicative of mental illness; nor do I mean to imply that homosexuality and pedophilia go hand in hand, so to speak. I'm merely noting that the social stigma still attached to homosexuality has made it a subject of the desire to suppress or control one's sexual inclinations.) The results were likely worse in the case of those who succeeded for some time in controlling their impulses, because that allowed them to fly under the radar of those who might otherwise have monitored their behavior more closely; in some cases, it no doubt resulted in their promotion to positions that would ultimately channel and facilitate the catastrophic outbreak of those impulses along certain avenues. All of which speaks to a need within religious groups -- and specifically in any religious tradition that stresses "redemption", since that has an obvious appeal to the troubled type -- to be particularly cognizant of the circumstances they create.

I am, however, willing to grant, to some degree, your criticism of examples of moral outrage bordering on and leading to violence; specifically, the hostile opposition to "abortion clinics" (which are often multi-use clinics or women's health organizations that include an abortion component) and attempts to have certain forms of expression (like the Harry Potter books) restricted or banned. There does seem to me to be a social or political (not to mention economic) element to both of these, but it's certainly less overt than in the case of, say, Rabin's assassination. Yet, to generalize these as indicative of religious thought is taking the argument farther than I think is necessary. They're mostly indicative of a trend in Judeo-Christian thought which says it's the place of religious groups to shape the entire society. But it's important to note that a trend like this is not something that spontaneously appears in religious circles: it's the result of specific historical circumstances and of the kind of social development that takes place in all cultural modes.



Thu Sep 20, 2007 5:57 pm
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Mad: Methinks thou doth protest too much. I titled the chapter "Some minds on religion" because I wanted it to be clear the contents referred to what may happen to some people under the influence of religions. The statement there are some evils that depend upon religion for their existence refers specifically to the actions of those who murder others, and usually themselves in the bargain, in the belief their actions are in the service of a god. It should be self-evident that such a basis for action is unique to religious belief. Now I think that's clear from what I said and the context in which I said it.

Nowhere do I indicate that such behavior is a characteristic of many or even most religious believers. Nowhere do I indicate that people may not find other rationales for visiting murderous violence on people. Nowhere do I indicate that religious belief is the only reason people may find for doing bad things to other people.

It's likely the two cases of women murdering their children are examples of mental illness as you note. Whether the illness was exacerbated by some misguided religious impulse is problematic. I simply cited the cases as examples of ways in which religious belief may influence human behavior. It's entirely possible the women would have been a threat to their children without the religious beliefs attributed to them. It's also possible the threat might not have been so lethal. I don't think we have enough information to make that determination.

I don't doubt for a moment that religious belief can sometimes mitigate mental illness or, at least, provide some temporary relief. However, I also think there are times when religious belief exacerbates such conditions and makes them worse.

George


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Tue Sep 25, 2007 9:39 am
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garicker wrote:
The statement there are some evils that depend upon religion for their existence refers specifically to the actions of those who murder others, and usually themselves in the bargain, in the belief their actions are in the service of a god. It should be self-evident that such a basis for action is unique to religious belief.


Self-evident how? If murder-suicide were unique to religiously influenced mania, I might see your point, but it clearly isn't. If your point is that only religious believers kill "in the service of god", then the point is not only self-evidence, it's question-begging. Where the claim of motive is the only factor that differentiates one violent act from another, then I have to wonder if there's really any benefit in drawing a distinction. The kids who shot up school campuses before turning their guns on themselves, for instance, have mostly been atheists. What in the situation would have been changed if they had claimed to have been inspired by God?

In most cases of religiously-inspired violent outburst, like the infanticides you mentioned, it seems likely to me that the "voice of God" was little more than a delusion manufactured in support of a violent action that the person felt inclined towards anyway. The recent spate of school shooting would tend to indicate that lack of religious belief is not sufficient to prevent that kind of impulse. So I'm not sure what end it serves to suggest that only religion can be responsible for that type of action.

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It's entirely possible the women would have been a threat to their children without the religious beliefs attributed to them. It's also possible the threat might not have been so lethal. I don't think we have enough information to make that determination.


Granted that we don't have enough information to make that determination, what purpose does it serve to raise those examples? If a mentally ill woman had killed her child, claiming that she was told to do so by the president, would you argue that Republican forms of government may potentially dangerous, even if only in the hands of the mentally ill?

In part, what I'm trying to suggest here is that the reader's perception of what any given paragraph has to do with the rest of the work will inform how they interpret that particular paragraph. Maybe your point was simply (like the point Dennett made in his book) that certain people shouldn't be allowed access to religious ideology. But without having that made explicit for them, the reader is more likely to think, "What's the purpose of this example? The rest of the book has been about why the author rejected theism, and about how religious believers influence society. Therefore...." And I don't think it should be all that surprising if a reader interprets those examples in a broader context than you perhaps intended, so long as the question of what specific context you intended remains vague or open. And it wasn't clear to me -- and, mind you, I'm a pretty careful reader -- what part you intended this section to play.



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Mad: Where the claim of motive is the only factor that differentiates one violent act from another, then I have to wonder if there's really any benefit in drawing a distinction.

Here's a quote from the chapter in question:

"All fanatics are dangerous. Religious fanatics are especially so because they believe the 'Truth' they claim has the sanction of a deity and therefore cannot be challenged by mere mortals. The thousands of victims of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were some of the more recent additions to a long line of human beings who have been sacrificed to such 'Truth' by those who will permit no deviation from it." (p. 45)

You may think there's no benefit in drawing the distinction. I do. Once a person claims to be committing violent acts on behalf of a "God," then any attempt at rational discourse is doomed to failure. Such actions are not a direct consequence of religious belief, since most religious believers don't behave in such abhorrent ways, but such actions are, in my view, dependent upon such belief, else they lose their rationale.

Now, you may well claim that people who act in that fashion are insane. Would you extend that to state that all people who claim to communicate with a deity also are insane? If not, how do you distinguish between the two? Once you've allowed for the existence of any sort of deity, how do you know which version is correct?

George


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Wed Oct 03, 2007 1:23 pm
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garicker wrote:
Once a person claims to be committing violent acts on behalf of a "God," then any attempt at rational discourse is doomed to failure.


The same appears to be true when people claim to be committing violent acts on behalf of an ideal (eg. "democracy", capital R "Reason"), on behalf of an identification (eg. patriotism, nationalism, class solidarity), or simply on behalf of themselves. In fact, I can't think of many situations in which a person who had already committed themselves to a violent course of action changed that course in response to "rational discourse." They may be persuaded by the threat of an opposing force, or by a compelling indication that theit chosen course won't be effective, but "rational discourse" that argues from moral grounds probably isn't going to add anything new to the decision making process of a person who has already decided on a violent course of action, whether or not God was ever a part of that process.

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Now, you may well claim that people who act in that fashion are insane.


In some cases, yes, but that's always an assessment you have to make based on the specifics of each case. I certainly wouldn't argue that everyone who justifies violent action by recourse to "God" or some ideology is insane.

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Once you've allowed for the existence of any sort of deity, how do you know which version is correct?


I'd argue that you don't. And I'd extend that argument to other forms of belief as well. Once you've allowed for the existence of morality...? Once you've allowed for the existence of a standard of evidence...? Once you've allowed for a view of the external world...? We don't know that any of these are right. We believe one way or another, and there is no one, obvious, objective criteria for arriving at a belief.



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Mad: We believe one way or another, and there is no one, obvious, objective criteria for arriving at a belief.

But this is what I find puzzling. Having taken that position, how is it that you didn't understand that what I would present in this book would be my beliefs on the subjects of atheism, gods, religions, etc. You seem to be saying, on one hand, that all anyone can ever offer are their own beliefs on a given subject, but on the other hand, I'm somehow at fault for not making it clear--which I think I did--that what was contained in my book was my view of the issues under consideration.

George


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Mad: The same appears to be true when people claim to be committing violent acts on behalf of an ideal (eg. "democracy", capital R "Reason"), on behalf of an identification (eg. patriotism, nationalism, class solidarity), or simply on behalf of themselves.

At the risk of beating this dead horse beyond all recognition, I have to ask this.

Do you honestly think it's as easy to persuade someone to fly a jet plane loaded with human beings into a building populated with many more human beings, knowing he or she would not survive the experience, on behalf of a political (or some other) agenda as it is to persuade a religious believer to take such action, believing it was the will of the deity that person worshipped?

I think religious belief adds a whole new dimension to the possibilities.

George


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Quote:
Do you honestly think it's as easy to persuade someone to fly a jet plane loaded with human beings into a building populated with many more human beings, knowing he or she would not survive the experience, on behalf of a political (or some other) agenda as it is to persuade a religious believer to take such action, believing it was the will of the deity that person worshipped?


Well the Tamil Tigers never seemed to have any problems. Indeed, they've used the tactic more than anyone, but it just didn't get any coverage because Sri Lanka doesn't count in the western media. I know that (supposed?) experts like Robert Pape claim that it is nationalism rather than religion that motivates suicide attacks. He argues that they are motivated by strategic secular goals.

Here's a link to a brief debate he had on the subject:

http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/temp ... p?CID=2401



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George: "All fanatics are dangerous. Religious fanatics are especially so because they believe the 'Truth' they claim has the sanction of a deity and therefore cannot be challenged by mere mortals. The thousands of victims of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were some of the more recent additions to a long line of human beings who have been sacrificed to such 'Truth' by those who will permit no deviation from it." (p. 45)

You may think there's no benefit in drawing the distinction. I do. Once a person claims to be committing violent acts on behalf of a "God," then any attempt at rational discourse is doomed to failure. Such actions are not a direct consequence of religious belief, since most religious believers don't behave in such abhorrent ways, but such actions are, in my view, dependent upon such belief, else they lose their rationale.


Once the claims to ominiscience and omnipotence are made, anything human, all-too human pales in impact. Likewise, mere mortal demands carry little or no influence with heavenly decree and divine dictation. It is very difficult (doomed as you say) to convince a person to challenge or reject these sort of godly governances- if they are convinced in their legitmacy and jursidiction.

But I question if fanatics are really so sure of what they claim. Are they as certain as their words and deeds communicate? Perhaps there is a gnawing sense of confusion, misunderstanding, uncertainty that disturbs them very deeply. Perhaps it is their fear that they don't really believe, or believe enough, or have the true and right kind of faith...that motivates them to such extreme acts of piety. Maybe their fanaticism is a symptom of a faith losing ground, becoming pointless. It is a dangerous act of overcompensation: a desperate flailing against uncertainties and disillusionment.

I think there is some virtue in bringing counter-trajectories within a tradition to bear against some fanaticisms. If the argument involves theological interpretation and scriptural exegesis, then counter-arguments can be drawn from similar theological assumptions and scriptural references. Appeals to tradition and ritual can also provide a reasoning that is not entirely foreign or ipso facto rejected.

Arguments for a violent jihad that murders innocents can be countered with multiple scriptural, traditional, legal and moral arguments that describe a profoundly different piety and call to action. Likewise, a warrior Christ unleashing vengeance on the unrepentent in the name of National Security, can be countered by a Jesus who said blessed are the peacemakers, the poor, and those who mourn...who said to turn the other cheek, to pray for and love our enemies.



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Niall: Well the Tamil Tigers never seemed to have any problems. Indeed, they've used the tactic more than anyone, but it just didn't get any coverage because Sri Lanka doesn't count in the western media. I know that (supposed?) experts like Robert Pape claim that it is nationalism rather than religion that motivates suicide attacks. He argues that they are motivated by strategic secular goals.

I must confess, I hadn't really considered the Tamil Tigers at all. As you say, Sri Lanka doesn't count in the western media ((and shame on the western media for that and lots of other omissions). So all of this is by way of saying, I'm going to have to get back to you on this one. I've been doing some other things and haven't had time to pursue the matter. But I will.

George


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Mon Oct 08, 2007 6:46 pm
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You had some specific questions about why I responded to the book the way I did, and out of courtesy I want to address those, but if you're position really is that the book is only meant to represent your beliefs, then I'm not sure there's any middle ground for discussion beyond that.

George wrote:
Mad: We believe one way or another, and there is no one, obvious, objective criteria for arriving at a belief.

But this is what I find puzzling. Having taken that position, how is it that you didn't understand that what I would present in this book would be my beliefs on the subjects of atheism, gods, religions, etc. You seem to be saying, on one hand, that all anyone can ever offer are their own beliefs on a given subject, but on the other hand, I'm somehow at fault for not making it clear--which I think I did--that what was contained in my book was my view of the issues under consideration.


Well, no, obviously it isn't my position that all anyone can ever offer is their own belief on a subject. We can certainly paraphrase what we take to be other people's beliefs; even if our paraphrase doesn't exactly correspond to that person's beliefs, the fact that it varies so much from our own proves the point.

To clarify, what I was trying to say in the text you quoted was that none of us are in a position sufficiently detatched to determine whether or not any particular method for arriving at a belief is objectively valid. And that point is particularly crucial when it comes to what we "allow" as the basis for other beliefs. The closer you get to the bottom of an argument, the more you'll find it rooted in the subjective adoption of one premise or another.

But I didn't really make that statement as a criticism of the book. I was addressing a point that you made, and I meant for that point to be taken in that fairly limited context. Most of my comments about the style and approach of the book were based on assumptions that can be better discerned if you preface those comments with a clause like, "If the point is to engage the reader in a dialogue, then...." If that had been the point, then I think a different tone would have been more appropriate -- one that dealt less with the more or less concrete form your beliefs have taken and more with the shape and facets of particular questions and problems germaine to the role of religion in modern American culture. But I think I've finally come to terms with your intention for the book, which was not to create dialogue but to present a particular point of view.

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Do you honestly think it's as easy to persuade someone to fly a jet plane loaded with human beings into a building populated with many more human beings, knowing he or she would not survive the experience, on behalf of a political (or some other) agenda as it is to persuade a religious believer to take such action, believing it was the will of the deity that person worshipped?


Yeah, actually, I think it can be "as easy", but I don't think it's particularly easy in either scenario. Most of our examples of people putting themselves in harms way for the sake of some institution have huge political components -- war is essentially just that: people stepping in front of a weapon in the service of politics.

Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer" provides a lot of insight into the conditions that can lead to that sort of suicidal impulse, and a lot of them are applicable as descriptions of the situations jihadists face at home. Religion and politics both provide modes of response to the conditions of abject poverty (Afghanistan is rated fourth world by the U.N.), subjection, feelings of powerless and paralysis, historical decline, so on and so forth. And often teims, those modes of response are so similar as to be difficult to distinguish. To that end, you see historical instances in which crowds of unarmed protesters (Bolsheviks, for example, or Burmese monks) march steadily towards an armed contingent that is sure to fire on them, but it isn't always possible to discern whether those protesters are religiously or politically motivated.

And there are other examples where it's difficult to sort out which motive, the religious or the political, has the upper hand. World War II kamikaze, for example, dove their bombs into Allied battle ships in service of a political end. At the same time, it's arguable that the act was premised on a religious structure that permeated Japanese society. So which motive was more influential? A lot of anti-religious critics would take the possibility of a religious motive as evidence that it was invariably operable. But variation is more probably the norm, such that some kamikaze were acting in the service of a religious demand while others were acting in the service of their state.



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Below is an excerpt from and essay written by Israeli peace activist and writer, Uri Avnery titled, The Revenge of a Child http://www.counterpunch.org/avnery1118.html .

In this essay he explores what it is that drives a person to terrible acts of malicious hate and terror. I think it is an interesting take on the complexities of fanaticism, and the power of rage- not necessarily religion.

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The persons who do these things are not known as crazy killers, blood-thirsty from birth. In almost all interviews with relatives and neighbors they are described as quite ordinary, non-violent individuals. Many of them are not religious fanatics. Indeed, Sirkhan Sirkhan, the man who committed the deed in Metzer, belonged to Fatah, a secular movement.

These persons belong to all social classes; some come from poor families who have reached the threshold of hunger, but others come from middle class families, university students, educated people. Their genes are not different from ours.

So what makes them do these things? What makes other Palestinians justify them?

In order to cope, one has to understand, and that does not mean to justify. Nothing in the world can justify a Palestinian who shoots at a child in his mother's embrace, just as nothing can justify an Israeli who drops a bomb on a house in which a child is sleeping in his bed. As the Hebrew poet Bialik wrote a hundred years ago, after the Kishinev pogrom: "Even Satan has not yet invented the revenge for the blood of a little child."

But without understanding, it is impossible to cope. The chiefs of the IDF have a simple solution: hit, hit, hit. Kill the attackers. Kill their commanders. Kill the leaders of their organizations. Demolish the homes of their families and exile their relatives. But, wonder of wonders, these methods achieve the opposite. After the huge IDF bulldozer flattens the "terrorist infrastructure", destroying-killing-uprooting everything on its way, within days a new "infrastructure" comes into being. According to the announcements of the IDF itself, since operation "Protective Shield" there have been some fifty warnings of imminent attacks every day.

The reason for this can be summed up in one word: rage.

Terrible rage, that fills the soul of a human being, leaving no space for anything else. Rage that dominates the person's whole life, making life itself unimportant. Rage that wipes out all limitations, eclipses all values, breaks the chains of family and responsibility. Rage that a person wakes up with in the morning, goes to sleep with in the evening, dreams about at night. Rage that tells a person: get up, take a weapon or an explosive belt, go to their homes and kill, kill, kill, no matter what the consequences.



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One of the problems with writing your opinions down and presenting them for other people's consideration is that occasionally you discover you hadn't thought things through quite as well as you thought you had.

In writing this chapter I was focusing on the role religious belief may have in facilitating or causing extremes of behavior. In particular, I was thinking of events like the 9/11 attacks, which were clearly enabled by Islamic fundamentalism even though they also clearly had a political component. I still think that's a legitimate point. However, in the discussion with Mad and Niall, I realize I've overstated my case.

On reflection, I think the statement there are evils that absolutely depend upon religion for their survival is unwarranted. In considering some of Mad's arguments and particularly Niall's mention of the Tamil Tigers, I have to agree a legitimate case can be made that while religious beliefs may lead some people to do unspeakable things, they are not particularly unique in that regard.

That doesn't mean I think religious ideas never lead to bad consequences or should get a pass when we are considering the causes of events, but it does mean that I recognize they have no monopoly in that regard.

So there's me thinking out loud. And Niall, I'm not an expert on the Tamil Tigers yet, but I do thank you for pointing out that example. It helped me to clarify my own thinking on the subject.

George


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George Ricker

"Nothing about atheism prevents me from thinking about any idea. It is the very epitome of freethought. Atheism imposes no dogma and seeks no power over others."

[i][b]mere atheism: no gods


Tue Oct 09, 2007 5:33 pm
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CummingsThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar WildeGod Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher HitchensThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama Paradise Lost by John Milton Bad Money by Kevin PhillipsThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson BurnettGodless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan BarkerThe Things They Carried by Tim O'BrienThe Limits of Power by Andrew BacevichLolita by Vladimir NabokovOrlando by Virginia Woolf On Being Certain by Robert A. Burton50 reasons people give for believing in a god by Guy P. HarrisonWalden: Or, Life in the Woods by Henry David ThoreauExile and the Kingdom by Albert CamusOur Inner Ape by Frans de WaalYour Inner Fish by Neil ShubinNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthyThe Age of American Unreason by Susan JacobyTen Theories of Human Nature by Leslie Stevenson & David HabermanHeart of Darkness by Joseph ConradThe Stuff of Thought by Stephen PinkerA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled HosseiniThe Lucifer Effect by Philip ZimbardoResponsibility and Judgment by Hannah ArendtInterventions by Noam ChomskyGodless in America by George A. RickerReligious Expression and the American Constitution by Franklyn S. HaimanDeep Economy by Phil McKibbenThe God Delusion by Richard DawkinsThe Third Chimpanzee by Jared DiamondThe Woman in the Dunes by Abe KoboEvolution vs. Creationism by Eugenie C. ScottThe Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanI, Claudius by Robert GravesBreaking The Spell by Daniel C. 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JoshiGlobal Brain by Howard BloomThe Lucifer Principle by Howard BloomGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Demon-Haunted World by Carl SaganBury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee BrownFuture Shock by Alvin Toffler

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