Usually when I pick up a new book it is because Wendy has insisted that I read it (she insists on far more books than I ever get through though) or because I have it recommended by a friend or on a blog I follow. This particular book I randomly picked up at the library because the title intrigued me for some reason; it turns out that I should probably rely more on recommendations than personal whimsy. Fooling Ourselves is a book about the various ways in which humans deceive themselves. The author leads off with some fairly withering criticisms of religion and the other standard ways we insist on believing what obviously ain't so, which appeals to me, but then goes and manages to be somewhat boring and wrong in curious ways.
Boring isn't necessarily much of a criticism. There are plenty of topics that are very hard to write interestingly about, which I can attest to with the number of blog posts I try to start and abandon because they are crap. Thing is, I am really interested in the topic of self deception, particularly as it relates to Religion, Politics and Terrorism so in theory I am the sort of person who really *should* be enraptured by this stuff. Unfortunately I wasn't, so I imagine most other people would find it close to unreadable.
I did find some things really intriguing though, especially the ways in which the author reveals his dearly held preconceptions. He argues pretty convincingly that fundamentalist religions tend towards cognitive simplicity (not the same as intelligence). When the only answer you need for anything is "God made it that way" or "God wants it that way" and things are either Right or Wrong without shades of grey you are going to tend to be cognitively simple. Unfortunately the author is too American and sees Christianity in far too positive a light compared to Islam. He sees suicide bombings and terrorism as a sign of Islam being even worse than Christianity, as if bombing cities from a US warplane is somehow acceptable, moral behaviour while strapping dynamite to one's own chest and destroying a marketplace is unacceptable. The difference here is that Muslims would happily bomb Christians with planes if they could, but they can't, so they resort to whatever means they have at their disposal. There is one particular quote that makes me laugh:
My hypothesis is that monotheism is associated with cognitive simplicity. This is most clear in Islam; in Christianity cognition is a bit more complex because of the trinity. In India, where there are 100,000 gods, there is the most complexity.
Right.... the fact that Christianity has a Trinity makes them cognitively more complex. I would buy that some of the religions in India might promote more complexity because they lack the authoritarian answer "God did it" and actually promote understanding outside the framework of an Angry Man in the Sky who is the Boss. The idea that Christianity is a step up because in some arcane way they define God to be part of a trinity is completely bogus though; it is just a way for the author to promote his own social group as less of a disaster than the others. If a religion emphasizes that there are no simple answers and that any belief or tradition, no matter how much conviction is behind it, must be open to criticism and potentially abandonment then you will see cognitive complexity there. Simply acknowledging "I could be wrong and I will change my mind if the evidence warrants it" is the key; whether or not you see your Angry Man as manifesting as three parts or not has no bearing on the issue.
I certainly don't give any credit to Islamic states and the various atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion there but neither do I doubt what the US would do if the religious folks had unlimited power. All I have to do is read Rick Santorum's campaign promises to know that there are plenty of people who would happily create a savage theocracy that oppresses anyone who isn't rich, white, Christian, straight, cisgendered and male. The difference there is the same as the difference between bombing with planes and suicide bombing; the zealots and lunatics in Western nations don't do as many horrible things simply because they lack the means, not because they lack the desire.