Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Hunting for Beginners

I’ve been interested for some time in the “ghost” industry in America, from books of ghost stories to New Orleans ghost tours to endless ghost hunting programs on television. One of details that make this social phenomenon so fascinating is its nearly total lack of explanatory theory. Exactly what do aficionados think a ghost really is? What evidence do they have? How do they test their hypotheses?  I’ve been looking for a good book that attempts to explain some of the models in a more technical sort of way, but so far, without success.   I recently checked out a copy of Rich Newman’s Ghost Hunting for Beginners.  I picked…

BOOK REVIEW: Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t

By Stephen Prothero For decades secular Americans have been painfully aware of an odd American phenomenon: secularists and unbelievers tend to know a great deal more about religion in general, Christianity in particular, and the contents of the Bible, than most of our neighbors who profess a faith. In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, author, professor of religion, and commentator Stephen Prothero tries to explain this phenomenon. A believer himself, Prothero acknowledges that Americans talk a great deal about the Bible but almost never read it, know next to nothing about their own religions, and even less about anybody else’s. In today’s America many…

BOOK REVIEW: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion

By Victor J. Stenger The latest (April 2012) from physicist and author Victor J. Stenger is God and the Folly of Faith. Those familiar with Stenger’s other books — I think there are 10 of them now — will not be surprised to learn that he believes science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. But in this volume he sharpens his focus on that point, firmly rejecting the notion that science and religion can function as non-overlapping magisteria, portraying them instead as “diametrically opposed worldviews.” He makes it quite clear that the two worldviews are not of equal value, as religion involves “magical thinking” that “warps all areas of life,” while…

BOOK REVIEW: Dinosaurs of Eden: Tracing the Mystery Through History

By Ken Ham I hadn’t noticed this particular bit of creationist schlock until somebody posted a page of it on Facebook. I just couldn’t resist, and bought myself a used copy, purely for its entertainment value. Dinosaurs of Eden, is an attempt to assure young people that science has it all wrong. It was written by Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and its subsidiary, the Creation Museum. The book is short and illustrated in order to appeal to children or younger teens, although the text is a bit dense for that age group. One suspects that many of the readers would be older teens and young adults whose…

BOOK REVIEW: Free Will

By Sam Harris The latest from Sam Harris is Free Will, a title that is self-explanatory. From his perspective as a neuroscientist, Harris examines the latest evidence regarding free will, and considers some of its social and political implications. This book is quite short, serving mostly as an introduction to a complex question that still needs a great deal of work. Harris’ key point is based on empirical tests. These show that the decisions we make moment by moment are registered in the brain slightly before we are consciously aware that we’ve made them. The conclusion drawn from this is that we make most of our decisions at some unconscious…

BOOK REVIEW: The Grand Design

By Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow Perhaps you are one of the lucky few who is naturally gifted with mathematical genius or at least has advanced training in the field. No? Me either. I think I understand that our reliance on energies such as light to observe the universe around us places limits on what we can know about the sub-atomic realm, yet it often seems to me that physicists take a little too much pleasure in emphasizing the mysteriousness of the quantum. Nevertheless, I cannot help but be curious. After all, physicists seem to be investigating the very nature of reality and knowledge, pressing the boundaries between philosophy and…

BOOK REVIEW: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

By Richard Dawkins Richard Dawkins’ 2009 book The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution is an excellent explanation of what Evolution is, how it works, and why it must be true. It is written with clarity for the non-specialist, and should be accessible to any college-educated reader. In a few places Dawkins relies a little too much on references to his other, copious writings, but he has mostly managed to find a good balance between length and readability. The book touches on many aspects of evolution, from radiometric dating to continental drift to genetics to the domestication of plants and animals. He aptly describes Evolution as an “improbability…

BOOK REVIEW: The Real History of the End of the World: Apocalyptic Predictions from Revelation and Nostradamus to Y2K and 2012

By Sharan Newman The Real History of the End of the World is a light-hearted look at a heavy subject. Historian and author Sharan Newman chooses examples from different cultures, religions, and time-periods to show that messiahs, millenarians and other doom-criers are a universal fixture of human societies. The approach is journalistic rather than academic, emphasizing breadth rather than depth. Each of the 43 very short chapters discusses one particular example of apocalyptic madness. A skeptical eye is turned on ancient Mesopotamian predictions, the Maya calendar, Nostradamus, fundamentalisms within Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions, Chinese revolutions, the “Bible code,” and more. The most developed section of the book discusses doomsday…

BOOK REVIEW: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

By Sam Harris Having enjoyed The End of Faith (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), I eagerly awaited the 2010 publication of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I’ve finally been able to give this book the time and attention it deserves, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in secular ethics, even though I find it somewhat incomplete. In The Moral Landscape, Harris attacks the willingness of the scientific establishment to accept the notion that science has little or nothing to say about morality and values, a position perhaps best summarized in Stephen Jay Gould’s proposal that science and religion occupy “non-overlapping…

BOOK REVIEW: Are We Living in the End Times?

by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins Are We Living in the End Times? by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins is a comparatively light and readable introduction to “typical” End Times exegesis, if by “typical” one understands the Protestant, fundamentalist, and pre-millennial approach. At 370 pages it might appear lengthy, but the material is not at all dense, and is vastly more condensed than the thousands of pages these same authors have produced in their fictionalized version of the same theme, the (in)famous Left Behind series of novels and movies. While differing in emphasis and detail from other writers on this topic, the general content runs along similar lines….