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Ch. 10: The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline...

#64: Mar. - May 2009 (Non-Fiction)
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Ch. 10: The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline...

God is Not Great

Ch. 10: The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell


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Robert Tulip
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Quotes from this chapter
prophets and seers and great theologians seem to have died out ...they ought to welcome the eclipse of this age of fraud ...Chariots in the sky ... speaks to the longing of every peasant ... miracle ... last word ... Hume ... possibilities ... laws of nature have been suspended ... delusion ... likelihood weighed ... report of the miracle ... odds must be adjusted ... obligation ... disbelieve the whole thing ... exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence ... encounters with spacecraft ... vivid and detailed ... huge new superstition ... Muggeridge ... launched the 'Mother Theresa' brand ... Kindly Light ... photographic miracle ... director ... going to say three cheers for Kodak ...sainthood of Mother Theresa ... scandal ... will further postpone the day when Indian villages cease to trust quacks ... Everything is already explained ... Argument from authority ... weakest ...ripping of the whole disguise is overdue ... sciences ... have shown religious myths to be false ... newer and finer wonders ...Marxist ... messianic element ... allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking
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Do you believe in miracles?

Part A: If I knew how to set up a poll, I would pose the question above. But I ask it anyway. Can we agree to use my defintion of "miracle"? I suggest that a miracle is a) a feat performed by a deity or person empowered by a deity, the feat being seen as controverting natural laws; and b) a phenomenon that occurs without such specific intervention, but is unexplainable in terms of science. Examples would be prayer healing someone who doesn't know she's being prayed for, ESP, "channeling" or other New Age phenomena.

Part B: This is one of Hitchens best chapters, I think. I hope people will read it and discuss it. I will give a long excerpt below just because I think it brilliantly shows that, whatever the words "shallow atheism" might mean, Hitchens is not shallow. He tells us he has been thinking about this book all his life, and it is indeed clear that he did not get the idea from the three prominent books on atheism that preceded his. His arguments are too well developed and supported (my opinion) not to have had a long gestation.

Pages 150-151:

"The 'argument from authority' is the weakest of all arguments. It is weak when it is asserted at second or third hand ("the Good Book says"), and it is even weaker when asserted at first hand, as everyone knows who has heard a parent say "because I say so" (and as every parent knows who has heard himself reduced to uttering words he once found so unconvincing). Nonetheless, it takes a certain "leap" of another kind to find oneself asserting that all religion is made up by ordinary mammals and has no secret or mystery to it. Behind the veil of Oz, there is nothing but bluff. Can this really be true? As one who has always been impressed by the weight of history and culture, I do keep asking myself this question. Was it all in vain, then: the great struggle of the theologians and scholars, and the stupendous efforts of painters and musicians to create something lasting and marvelous that would testify to the glory of god?

Not at all. It does not matter to me whether Homer was one person or many, or whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic or a closet agnostic. I should not feel my own world destroyed if the greatest writier about love and tragedy and comedy and morals was finally revealed to be the Earl of Oxford all along....Shakespeare has much more moral salience than the Talmud or the Koran or any account of the fearful squabbles of Iron Age tribes. But there is a great deal to be learned and appreciated from the scrutiny of religion, and one often finds oneself standing atop the shoulders of dstinguished writers and thinkers who were certainly one's intellectual and sometimes even one's moral superiors. Many of them, in their own time, had ripped away the disguise of idolatry and paganism, and even risked martyrdom for the sake of disputes with their own coreligionists. However, a moment in history has now arrived when even a pygmy such as myself can claim to know more--through know merit of his own--and to see that the final ripping of the whole disguise is overdue. Between them, the sciences of textual criticism, archeology, physics, and molecular biology have shown religious myths to be false and man-made and have also succeeded in evolving better and more enlightened explanations. The loss of faith can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near-miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also "man-made (though one sometimes wonders in the case of Mozart). I can say this as one whose own secular faith has been shaken and discarded, not without pain."

Hitchens goes on to talk frankly about his own one-time immersion in the secular religion of Marxism. This, too, is well worth reading.
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Definition accepted.

It amazes me what will be accepted as miraculous, or supernatural.

Grilled cheese samwich with image of Jesus?

sold on internet for somewhere around $40,000 us. Proof of the devine.

Chicken grease from the coma girl's eyes? Miracle.

Statue with "blood" tubes to dispense from stigmata wounds? Pants-shitting amazement.

In a discussion with my sister about belief in general she brought up ghosts. Her eyes took on the glean of belief. You know that look. Eyebrows slightly arched, eyelids open wide, slight shake of the head in the negative.

She related the story of a group photo taken at a class re-union where there was a face in the crowd nobody could identify... obviously that was a ghost. How else would i explain that?

I said, "Simple. someone with a face was standing there when the photo was taken."

Why must we jump to supernatural explainations when "someone wandered into frame" is the easily superior explaination?
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God has been found!

Just recently, in Burlington County NJ, my neck of the woods, a woman sliced open a potato and wha, la, she found the image of a cross. God lives in a potato in NJ, we are all doomed.
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I thought Jesus was reputed to have said,

"An evil and corrupt generation craves for a sign".....

What purpose could such signs serve other than to pander to superstition? I used to think that the best thing about Christianity was that it inured one to superstition.

Wrong again!!!
Only those become weary of angling who bring nothing to it but the idea of catching fish.

He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad....

Rafael Sabatini
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Robert Tulip
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Re: Do you believe in miracles?

DWill wrote:Part A: If I knew how to set up a poll, I would pose the question above. But I ask it anyway. Can we agree to use my definition of "miracle"? I suggest that a miracle is a) a feat performed by a deity or person empowered by a deity, the feat being seen as controverting natural laws; and b) a phenomenon that occurs without such specific intervention, but is unexplainable in terms of science. Examples would be prayer healing someone who doesn't know she's being prayed for, ESP, "channeling" or other New Age phenomena.
Thanks Bill, I think your definition only goes a part of the way to explain the miraculous. I take the view that nothing can occur contrary to natural law, which under your definition would make miracles impossible. We should never postulate that God contravenes the laws of nature, but I hesitate to abandon the concept of the miraculous to its magical origins. Acts of love and grace can have a miraculous quality, transforming people while remaining completely explainable by science.

Part B: This is one of Hitchens best chapters, I think. I hope people will read it and discuss it. I will give a long excerpt below just because I think it brilliantly shows that, whatever the words "shallow atheism" might mean, Hitchens is not shallow. He tells us he has been thinking about this book all his life, and it is indeed clear that he did not get the idea from the three prominent books on atheism that preceded his. His arguments are too well developed and supported (my opinion) not to have had a long gestation.
Great point Bill, Hitchens is conversant with the main currents of human thought, and sets his own views in the context of wrestling with arguments for the existence of God.
Pages 150-151: Behind the veil of Oz, there is nothing but bluff.
Hitchens displays a failure to understand the basis of religious thought with this comment. It speaks to the prominent modern American myth of The Wizard of Oz, which at a religious level is describing God as a human creation. America yearns for a sense of mastery and control, exemplified in its other great myth Superman. Oz reassures the sceptical doubter that the universe can be explained by science, and that all mysteries – failures of courage, brains and love – can be rectified through the power of positive thinking.

The problem with this ‘control’ version of religion, as noted by Bacevich, is that the dream of control is an illusion. The empirical rationality of western domination stretches from Wolfowitz, perhaps as far as Hitchens. A more humble view would acknowledge it does not see through the veil of Oz, rather than arrogantly asserting that God is bluffing.
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CHitchens: The 'argument from authority' is the weakest of all arguments. It is weak when it is asserted at second or third hand ("the Good Book says"), and it is even weaker when asserted at first hand, as everyone knows who has heard a parent say "because I say so" (and as every parent knows who has heard himself reduced to uttering words he once found so unconvincing).

Authority can be legitimate or illegitimate. A parent grabbing a child and pulling them out of a busy intersection is imposing a force of authority...one that can probably be justified. A nation dropping cluster bombs over densely populated villages and cities is imposing another form of authority...one that requires a more complicated and difficult form of justification- but, in most cases (perhaps all) relies upon the authority of the generals and field marshalls who declare: "the enemy is there, and this is the best way for us to destroy them and protect our nation's interests". The nation bleats 'amen!' and the cities burn. Those who challenge the authority of the generals and field marshalls are called cowards, traitors, haters of the fatherland. We must trust these men to make the right decision, have the best information, and pursue our best interests: how could they decieve us? Why would they want to?

Ultimately, no matter where we place our authority, or from whom or what we derive our directives, it is we who establish the rank and order of power...it is we who say "this is my bedrock, here is my foundation, here is my truth and law for living and for dying"....pushed hard enough, all we really have is "because I say so".

CHitchens: Nonetheless, it takes a certain "leap" of another kind to find oneself asserting that all religion is made up by ordinary mammals and has no secret or mystery to it. Behind the veil of Oz, there is nothing but bluff.

The veil of Oz is too easily projected onto them: the other team, the other guy, those people over there, those tribes, that other party, religion, nation, school of thought, etc....we, us and ours and the way we do things around here: our group and party and nation are free of that nonsense and delusion...unlike the rest of those uninitiated, uneducated, unenlightened, unclean and ordinary- we have braved the tearing of the veil, because (unlike them) we are better, brighter, stronger. True, religion is made up by ordinary mammals...but, we, we are far from ordinary.

CHitchens: Can this really be true? As one who has always been impressed by the weight of history and culture, I do keep asking myself this question. Was it all in vain, then: the great struggle of the theologians and scholars, and the stupendous efforts of painters and musicians to create something lasting and marvelous that would testify to the glory of god?

Perhaps no more in vain as those courageous souls who have stood up to tyranny and despotism, abuse and domination, saying no to social injustice and personal degradation...demanding respect and care and honor and rights to fully participate in the structures and systems of power in their world...risking their lives and the lives of their families...struggling for a better world of ecological sustainability and economic fairness...perhaps all of this, too, is in vain: foolish and naive and dangerously ignorant of how power actually works?


CHitchens: Not at all. It does not matter to me whether Homer was one person or many, or whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic or a closet agnostic. I should not feel my own world destroyed if the greatest writier about love and tragedy and comedy and morals was finally revealed to be the Earl of Oxford all along....Shakespeare has much more moral salience than the Talmud or the Koran or any account of the fearful squabbles of Iron Age tribes.

If Shakespeare was a closet Catholic...then perhaps there is something about the Catholic faith that permeated and breathed life into the 'greatest writer about love and tragedy and comedy and morals'? IF Shakespeare felt it necessary to practice and worship as a Catholic...it seems that would say more about his moral saliency than our ponderings of his value and importance. And why should we expect the Koran or Talmud to be understood or shared in the same fashion as Shakespeare?

CHitchens: But there is a great deal to be learned and appreciated from the scrutiny of religion,

What about the the understanding that comes from practicing and participating in a religion? In other words, simply scrutinizing religion will provide undoubtedly valuable and important wisdom...but at what point does the nurturing, tending, and cultivation of religion offer wisdom as well?

CHitchens: one often finds oneself standing atop the shoulders of dstinguished writers and thinkers who were certainly one's intellectual and sometimes even one's moral superiors. Many of them, in their own time, had ripped away the disguise of idolatry and paganism, and even risked martyrdom for the sake of disputes with their own coreligionists.

Here, the value of religion is best in disclosing its own abuses: in other words, religion works best where it confronts its own ignorances and misunderstandings. Hitchens is identifying the best of religion, at least here, in its Prophetic pathos of confronting falsehood, injustice and violent imposition of dogma and doctrine.

CHitchens: However, a moment in history has now arrived when even a pygmy such as myself can claim to know more--through know merit of his own--and to see that the final ripping of the whole disguise is overdue. Between them, the sciences of textual criticism, archeology, physics, and molecular biology have shown religious myths to be false and man-made and have also succeeded in evolving better and more enlightened explanations.

Found the light! Free at last!

CHithcens: The loss of faith can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near-miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also "man-made (though one sometimes wonders in the case of Mozart). I can say this as one whose own secular faith has been shaken and discarded, not without pain."

I am perplexed as to what newer and finer wonders have done to help us deliver ever more destructive forms of explosives and poisons across the globe...pumping more and more toxins into our air and soil and water and food supplies...terrors of war and ecological devastation have not diminished, but only increased...why we should trust or find authority in the 'man-made' elements of existence requires a faith at least as extraordinary and miraculous as our less enlightened forebears.
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Re: God has been found!

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Re: God has been found!

DWill wrote:
Suz wrote:Just recently, in Burlington County NJ, my neck of the woods, a woman sliced open a potato and wha, la, she found the image of a cross. God lives in a potato in NJ, we are all doomed.
Hichens makes the point that God, or whoever is said to have performed the miracle, always does such piddly miracles! Why not something really impressive?
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Re: Do you believe in miracles?

Robert Tulip wrote:[. I take the view that nothing can occur contrary to natural law, which under your definition would make miracles impossible. We should never postulate that God contravenes the laws of nature, but I hesitate to abandon the concept of the miraculous to its magical origins. Acts of love and grace can have a miraculous quality, transforming people while remaining completely explainable by science.
I wanted to avoid the bleed-over that occurs when we let common usages back in. So many things are declared miracluous. Many of them may be wonderful and necessary, as in your examples, but I would say they are not miraculous at all, and that there are plenty of other good words for these things. Of course, religion has no monopoly over or necessary connection to these experiences.
Hitchens displays a failure to understand the basis of religious thought with this comment. It speaks to the prominent modern American myth of The Wizard of Oz, which at a religious level is describing God as a human creation. America yearns for a sense of mastery and control, exemplified in its other great myth Superman. Oz reassures the sceptical doubter that the universe can be explained by science, and that all mysteries – failures of courage, brains and love – can be rectified through the power of positive thinking.
Well, God is a human creation, isn't he? Note that my statement only has meaning when God is the personal god that intervenes in our lives as portrayed in the Bible. Other notions of God, which are essentially non-theistic, don't apply here.
The problem with this ‘control’ version of religion, as noted by Bacevich, is that the dream of control is an illusion. The empirical rationality of western domination stretches from Wolfowitz, perhaps as far as Hitchens. A more humble view would acknowledge it does not see through the veil of Oz, rather than arrogantly asserting that God is bluffing.
Of course, Hitchens doesn't say God is bluffing...that would require belief in him! And might he not agree with you that God can be a proponent of this control model? Or are you implying that he is a backer of the God-driven Wolfowitz control model (and this would be truly ironic). Anyway, an interesting and imaginative point.
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Dissident Heart wrote:Authority can be legitimate or illegitimate....
Ultimately, no matter where we place our authority, or from whom or what we derive our directives, it is we who establish the rank and order of power...it is we who say "this is my bedrock, here is my foundation, here is my truth and law for living and for dying"....pushed hard enough, all we really have is "because I say so".
Although if it is "we" who establish the bedrock, we are then empowering an authority, which is the way it's supposed to work in a democracy. Ultimately, any argument from authority depends on the perceived legitimacy or power of that authority, sometimes on one alone, sometimes in combination. We all assess this quality when deciding whether to comply. Whether the authority is a god or or a government makes no difference; we will assess the authority's claim to legitimacy and its ability to wield power. Hitchens says that he has always respected the authority of history and culture, and that it is therefore not easy for him to assert that religion has rested on a false foundation. Look at all the brilliant people who had been involved that put him to shame intellectually and even morally. He makes his decision based on the legitimacy of the authority, which he has found wanting.
The veil of Oz is too easily projected onto them: the other team, the other guy, those people over there, those tribes, that other party, religion, nation, school of thought, etc....we, us and ours and the way we do things around here: our group and party and nation are free of that nonsense and delusion...unlike the rest of those uninitiated, uneducated, unenlightened, unclean and ordinary- we have braved the tearing of the veil, because (unlike them) we are better, brighter, stronger. True, religion is made up by ordinary mammals...but, we, we are far from ordinary.
The boast you describe so well, if made by Hitchens, would indeed as you imply be the height of solipsism. If Hitchens or anyone else claims that there is an automatic positive benefit stemming from non-belief, I will join you in deploring that. To the extent that he might say or believe that atheists are less likely to screw things up or to be screwed up, he would be wrong. But I don't get any strong sense of that from his wiriting here.
Perhaps no more in vain as those courageous souls who have stood up to tyranny and despotism, abuse and domination, saying no to social injustice and personal degradation...demanding respect and care and honor and rights to fully participate in the structures and systems of power in their world...risking their lives and the lives of their families...struggling for a better world of ecological sustainability and economic fairness...perhaps all of this, too, is in vain: foolish and naive and dangerously ignorant of how power actually works?
You're not saying this runs counter to Hitchens, though, I assume.
If Shakespeare was a closet Catholic...then perhaps there is something about the Catholic faith that permeated and breathed life into the 'greatest writer about love and tragedy and comedy and morals'? IF Shakespeare felt it necessary to practice and worship as a Catholic...it seems that would say more about his moral saliency than our ponderings of his value and importance. And why should we expect the Koran or Talmud to be understood or shared in the same fashion as Shakespeare?
Well, Shakespeare's religion is speculation. It's not a solid that we really can talk about, nor do we need to in order to appreciate his plays. Hitchens' comment about moral saliency needs to be understood against the common objection that without religion we would have no guidance as to what is right or wrong or how to know the good life. In Shakespeare, Homer, Milton, Joyce and so many others we do have a treasury of moral literature that can serve as well as various scriptures.
What about the the understanding that comes from practicing and participating in a religion? In other words, simply scrutinizing religion will provide undoubtedly valuable and important wisdom...but at what point does the nurturing, tending, and cultivation of religion offer wisdom as well?
I think you are assuming that he has a fight to pick on this basis. From his title, you would think so, but look further.
Here, the value of religion is best in disclosing its own abuses: in other words, religion works best where it confronts its own ignorances and misunderstandings. Hitchens is identifying the best of religion, at least here, in its Prophetic pathos of confronting falsehood, injustice and violent imposition of dogma and doctrine.
A point for him? :smile:

CHitchens: However, a moment in history has now arrived when even a pygmy such as myself can claim to know more--through know merit of his own--and to see that the final ripping of the whole disguise is overdue. Between them, the sciences of textual criticism, archeology, physics, and molecular biology have shown religious myths to be false and man-made and have also succeeded in evolving better and more enlightened explanations.
DH wrote:Found the light! Free at last!
He is not making the utopian declaration that you are mocking, is he? It seems quite al lot more limited than that to me.
CHithcens: The loss of faith can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near-miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also "man-made (though one sometimes wonders in the case of Mozart). I can say this as one whose own secular faith has been shaken and discarded, not without pain."
DH wrote: I am perplexed as to what newer and finer wonders have done to help us deliver ever more destructive forms of explosives and poisons across the globe...pumping more and more toxins into our air and soil and water and food supplies...terrors of war and ecological devastation have not diminished, but only increased...why we should trust or find authority in the 'man-made' elements of existence requires a faith at least as extraordinary and miraculous as our less enlightened forebears.
I think that by "newer and finer wonders" he is referring to such basics as evolution and other discoveries of science, and is explicitly contrasting them with the the way that religion explained the natural world. These are not "man-made" elements, actually. I agree it's wise to be skeptical--or scornful-- of claims that we've reached a millenium through all of our progress. We still have a status quo that was no different when religion ruled and likely will not be different when it doesn't.
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DWill wrote:In Shakespeare, Homer, Milton, Joyce and so many others we do have a treasury of moral literature that can serve as well as various scriptures.
Joyce?

The supposition that a literary education improves one's morals has no foundation that I know of. From personal experience I have found literary persons as a group to be less trustworthy than the uneducated.
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Re: Do you believe in miracles?

DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:[. I take the view that nothing can occur contrary to natural law, which under your definition would make miracles impossible. We should never postulate that God contravenes the laws of nature, but I hesitate to abandon the concept of the miraculous to its magical origins. Acts of love and grace can have a miraculous quality, transforming people while remaining completely explainable by science.
I wanted to avoid the bleed-over that occurs when we let common usages back in. So many things are declared miraculous. Many of them may be wonderful and necessary, as in your examples, but I would say they are not miraculous at all, and that there are plenty of other good words for these things. Of course, religion has no monopoly over or necessary connection to these experiences.
Fair enough, religion has so badly corrupted the concept of the miracle that it probably deserves a rest from polite use. Still, there is symbolic meaning in the miracles of Jesus which we don’t see if we just focus on the debate about whether they actually happened.
Hitchens displays a failure to understand the basis of religious thought with this comment. It speaks to the prominent modern American myth of The Wizard of Oz, which at a religious level is describing God as a human creation. America yearns for a sense of mastery and control, exemplified in its other great myth Superman. Oz reassures the sceptical doubter that the universe can be explained by science, and that all mysteries – failures of courage, brains and love – can be rectified through the power of positive thinking.
Well, God is a human creation, isn't he? Note that my statement only has meaning when God is the personal god that intervenes in our lives as portrayed in the Bible. Other notions of God, which are essentially non-theistic, don't apply here.
Hammering in the stake to the heart of the ‘human creation’ ignores the fact that it returns in another guise. A non-theistic Christianity, for example from Borg, Harpur and Spong, is becoming much more widespread. The idolatry of believing in one’s own creation is condemned in the ten commandments and the epistles of Paul, for setting up a control doctrine on the model of the tower of Babel.
The problem with this ‘control’ version of religion, as noted by Bacevich, is that the dream of control is an illusion. The empirical rationality of western domination stretches from Wolfowitz, perhaps as far as Hitchens. A more humble view would acknowledge it does not see through the veil of Oz, rather than arrogantly asserting that God is bluffing.
Of course, Hitchens doesn't say God is bluffing...that would require belief in him! And might he not agree with you that God can be a proponent of this control model? Or are you implying that he is a backer of the God-driven Wolfowitz control model (and this would be truly ironic). Anyway, an interesting and imaginative point.
In practice, Hitchens did align with Wolfowitz over the Iraq War, as part of his chameleon transformation from Trotskyite to neoconservative.

He does imply that “God” is a rather tawdry imaginative construction who can be seen through in the same way Dorothy saw through the wizard. However, framing God in this way removes the sense of absolute fate which has always been central to the doctrine of God. You can't just assume that the imaginative language is seen as the reality, when religious traditions are at pains to say that God is beyond description.
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ethics vs. morality

Hello Thomas, and DWILL:

Christopher Hitchens wrote:
". . . ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythcal morality tales of the holy books" (God is Not Great, pg. 5).

Thomas, are you speaking of ethics or morality? I find merrit in the authors mentioned by DWILL, and will add my own, Thomas Pynchon.

True, a well read person does not gain great moral wisdom from the books that she chooses to read. However, how does a literary person become less trustworthy? It is impossible to debate, or exchange opinions, or discuss topics with a person uneducated on the proposed topic, a monologue would be the result. It has been my personal experience to find the one man show monologue untrustworthy.

Suzanne
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