Book Corner 2019.12


The Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray

I liked this book for its main idea, more than for its writing or details, which frankly were often over my head.


The main idea is one I’ve tried to fully form in my head many a time, about progress being a myth. Gray argues here that much of modern atheism, notably secular humanism, is wholly religious in nature, and owes its existence to monotheism and Christianity.


Prior to Christianity, so it goes, the ancients had no concept of a grand narrative of human progress. Things were seen as cyclical.  Humans progressed, and then fell back as often as not.  Knowledge was gained and lost.  There was nothing new under the sun.


Pow! Here comes Christianity.  Now history becomes a story of before and after, human striving serving an ultimate purpose.


Whereas Christianity is what lent humanity the idea of salvation and progression, what monotheism brought to the table was universalism. No longer would I worship my local gods and you yours; not even would it be the case that I would worship my “God” and you yours.  No, now there was ONLY ONE god – for EVERYONE.  From here arose the tendency of humans not just to conquer, not just to impose their physical will on others, but to insist on imposing their very morality and religion on others, which was something new.


There is a lot in this book about the religious nature of so-called atheistic movements – Bolshevism, Naziism, and lots of obscure movements and tyrants that I for one don’t think I had ever heard of – “Bockelson” or “John of Leiden,” for example, an Anabaptist from the 16th century, made for a particularly gruesome digression. Gray seems to almost delight in ticking off atrocities committed throughout the ages by the religious and allegedly areligious alike.  I could have done without it.


This world view of life as cyclical and non-improving is one that resonates with me, and though I usually think of it on the micro rather than macro scale, it seems to fit the facts well enough on both levels. I feel exactly like the four-year-old child I once was.  True, I used to be two feet tall, and now I am five foot four.  Is that “progress”?  I am better now at follow spelling rules.  I’ve amassed some knowledge.  Progress can only be proven on trivial levels such as this.  In so many more senses, I am the same.


Similarly, you cannot deny that humans own more cell phones now than ever before, certainly more than in the 15th century.  It’s a fact.  Is that progress?  We’ve managed to amass technical knowledge, and not yet lose it, though there is no guarantee we won’t lose it all somewhere down the line.  But despots and intolerance continue to rule as much of the globe as they ever did.  I won’t bog down in a scorecard of what ways we’ve progressed and what ways we haven’t – ultimately, I’m not here to convert you, and neither is Gray.  One of the types of atheism he semi-ridicules is that which does nothing but position itself in opposition to religion.  Religion is part of human nature; why single it out for opposition?  Science and religion are not opposites or opposed to each other any more than are science and art.  Do scientists seek to stamp out art?  Why not?  So, why try to stamp out religion?  Think about it.  And if you are a secular humanist, and your “religion” is that of human progress, then good for you.  Different people can have different religions and moralities.  We very likely need them, and have them for a purpose.



Book Corner 2019.11


Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

I can’t be objective about this book. It’s a memoir by someone born unwanted to an unwed teenage mother, who grew up in & around Wichita.  I was born to an unwed teenage mother, and I spent a year or so in my late teens with the weirdest determination to move with my boyfriend from Staten Island to Wichita.  Hence this book was like a weird mash-up of the kind of life I could have had, poor and disadvantaged, had I not been relinquished; and the life I briefly but badly wanted to have, canning vegetables in a farmhouse in Kansas.

So, that said, let’s try to be objective. It may seem at first blush that we have yet another GLASS CASTLE on our hands – look at my crazy childhood!  Marvel at my wherewithal as I escape it!  But this is one “growing up poor” memoir that is definitely different.  Smarsh addresses the whole thing to “you” – “you” is the baby she never had; the unwanted, unwed pregnancy that would have sealed her fate, like that of her mother and grandmother before her, had she not made it her teenage life’s goal to graduate with a diploma in hand and no baby inside of her.

Furthermore, Smarsh doesn’t play her childhood for shock value. All of the main characters in her life are viewed with compassion.  In fact, the book is more like HILLBILLY ELEGY than GLASS CASTLE; but HILLBILLY wasn’t political at all compared to this.  Smarsh puts no blame whatsoever on any of her relatives for their actions; she blames everything on poverty, and poverty she blames on our flawed American system.

She has no policy prescriptions, and it’s not clear what she would advocate to fix things. Her relatives eschew handouts and help, and wouldn’t accept increased (or any) welfare payments if they were offered, so increasing traditional poverty relief programs won’t help.  What Smarsh seems to want is an admission – from somewhere, somehow – that the American Dream is a hoax.  Working hard DOESN’T help.  And then, I guess, we take it from there?

I can see whence she gets this – by all accounts, her folks DID work hard, and DO work hard. I lost track of the number of truck stops opened by the females and jobs held down by her Dad.  And I’m not seeing incapacitating addiction, other than by Dad’s new wife, or too many other horrendous life decisions; apart from too much husband-hopping and, of course, the unwanted pregnancies, these being where Smarsh lays the blame from Day 1, being one of them herself.  Her family is Catholic, so I guess that’s why contraception is not mentioned even one time throughout the entire book that I can remember.  (Smarsh stays unfertilized by choosing a boyfriend with no “physical desire” for her – she drops this strange fact at the end of the book, never having mentioned a boyfriend before, which was bizarre.)  It is odd to me how Catholics can apparently take the no-contraception rule so incredibly seriously, but not pay any respect to certain other rules, such as, oh, say, the one about marriage vows.

As a writer, Smarsh occasionally gets repetitive, as well as coming off as whiny. A big plot point is her mother’s ambivalence toward her.  She gives us very few actual examples, none of which is earth-shattering; though maybe I’m just inured to such things by the whole GLASS CASTLE genre.  The narrative also does not seem directly chronological, and gets confusing.  Apart from the names of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, names of other relatives could get hard to keep straight, especially due to the overlapping ages of the generations due to the unplanned timing of pregnancies; but Smarsh does drop reminders reasonably often (“my young aunt”, etc.).

I wanted to return to this story again and again… maybe, in the end, mostly due to my personal reasons. I’m so happy I discovered it.