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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Simplicity is the basis of atheism?

Albert Einstein once said insanity is going to the same conferences over and over and expecting a different result. Or at least he said something to that effect. The National Conference of American Atheists, held recently in Minneapolis, could fit neatly within this maxim, except for one thing: the audience was overwhelmingly, unexpectedly young. When the commencement speaker asked all students to stand, close to a quarter of the seats in the hotel ballroom emptied. Two high school kids sitting against the back wall (free from school in honor of Good Friday, ironically) were so animated that they would have fit in better at a hip hop show than a conference.

Many of the speakers boasted about the large turnout of young people, pointing to a recent Pew report that suggests a growing trend of skepticism toward religion in people under 50. Among the 10-plus speakers, however, only two seemed intent on engaging the younger members of the audience. One, predictably, was scientist and author Richard Dawkins, whose eloquent and erudite manner is overshadowed only by the rationality of his oratory. Dawkins is a go-to guy for atheist talking points, and there was plenty of furious note taking in the audience during his presentation, presumably to stockpile ammunition for future debates. The other was physicist Lawrence Krauss, whose lecture on dark matter and energy was informative and surprisingly accessible to the clueless layperson.

Though widely different in focus, Dawkins’ and Krauss’ presentations had one central similarity: a simplicity of argument. Simplicity is the basis of atheism, and it’s also what many rational thinkers find appealing. There is no room for ritualistic mystery in atheism. It is adherent to the laws of nature and humanism, nothing more. To atheists, the mystery of the universe is not a testament to the power of a god, but a thing to be studied and ultimately unlocked.

Unfortunately, this simplicity was lost on most of the speakers, who were more intent on pointing out the flaws in religion than they were in making a case for the inherent rationality of atheism. The defensive vitriol leveled at the religious powers-that-be effectively muddied the waters. Using atheism as a takedown of religion makes basic belief systems complicated. It is difficult to address the many failings of the world’s religions without entering the labyrinthine, incense-scented halls of ancient mythology. Going down that road serves only to add to the confusion of people unfamiliar with what atheism really is, exacerbating the misled belief that it is a cult or a religion. In fact, atheism is the antithesis of such belief-oriented groups. Next year’s conference would do well to scrap the bathetic victimhood and pointless navel-gazing, and concentrate on nabbing more speakers like Dawkins and Krauss.

—Morgan Winters

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You Want Closure In Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs

The oddest book title of the year is You Want Closure In Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs (Simon and Schuster), according to a recent contest from the British magazine the Bookseller. Runners up included I Was Tortured By the Pygmy Love Queen (Nazca Plains Corporation) and Cheese Problems Solved (Woodhead Publishing).

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Reading Habits And Love...

Let’s face it — this may be a gender issue. Brainy women are probably more sensitive to literary deal breakers than are brainy men. (Rare is the guy who’d throw a pretty girl out of bed for revealing her imperfect taste in books.) After all, women read more, especially when it comes to fiction. “It’s really great if you find a guy that reads, period,” said Beverly West, an author of “Bibliotherapy: The Girl’s Guide to Books for Every Phase of Our Lives.” Jessa Crispin, a blogger at the literary site, agrees. “Most of my friends and men in my life are nonreaders,” she said, but “now that you mention it, if I went over to a man’s house and there were those books about life’s lessons learned from dogs, I would probably keep my clothes on.”

Still, to some reading men, literary taste does matter. “I’ve broken up with girls saying, ‘She doesn’t read, we had nothing to talk about,’” said Christian Lorentzen, an editor at Harper’s. Lorentzen recalls giving one girlfriend Nabokov’s “Ada” — since it’s “funny and long and very heterosexual, even though I guess incest is at its core.” The relationship didn’t last, but now, he added, “I think it’s on her Friendster profile as her favorite book.”

James Collins, whose new novel, “Beginner’s Greek,” is about a man who falls for a woman he sees reading “The Magic Mountain” on a plane, recalled that after college, he was “infatuated” with a woman who had a copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” on her bedside table. “I basically knew nothing about Kundera, but I remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh; trendy, bogus metaphysics, sex involving a bowler hat,’ and I never did think about the person the same way (and nothing ever happened),” he wrote in an e-mail message. “I know there were occasions when I just wrote people off completely because of what they were reading long before it ever got near the point of falling in or out of love: Baudrillard (way too pretentious), John Irving (way too middlebrow), Virginia Woolf (way too Virginia Woolf).” Come to think of it, Collins added, “I do know people who almost broke up” over “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen: “‘Overrated!’ ‘Brilliant!’ ‘Overrated!’ ‘Brilliant!’”

Naming a favorite book or author can be fraught. Go too low, and you risk looking dumb. Go too high, and you risk looking like a bore — or a phony. “Manhattan dating is a highly competitive, ruthlessly selective sport,” Augusten Burroughs, the author of “Running With Scissors” and other vivid memoirs, said. “Generally, if a guy had read a book in the last year, or ever, that was good enough.” The author recalled a date with one Michael, a “robust blond from Germany.” As he walked to meet him outside Dean & DeLuca, “I saw, to my horror, an artfully worn, older-than-me copy of ‘Proust’ by Samuel Beckett.” That, Burroughs claims, was a deal breaker. “If there existed a more hackneyed, achingly obvious method of telegraphing one’s education, literary standards and general intelligence, I couldn’t imagine it.”

But how much of all this agonizing is really about the books? Often, divergent literary taste is a shorthand for other problems or defenses. “I had a boyfriend I was crazy about, and it didn’t work out,” Nora Ephron said. “Twenty-five years later he accused me of not having laughed while reading ‘Candy’ by Terry Southern. This was not the reason it didn’t work out, I promise you.” Sloane Crosley, a publicist at Vintage/Anchor Books and the author of “I Was Told There’d Be Cake,” essays about single life in New York, put it this way: “If you’re a person who loves Alice Munro and you’re going out with someone whose favorite book is ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ perhaps the flags of incompatibility were there prior to the big reveal.”
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