What I've been reading lately
A very thin (but also revealing and funny) exposé of one of the great sacred cows of modern religion -- Mother Teresa. It's all here: the celebrity photo-ops, the fatuous "miracles", the callous cruelty behind the charity, the use of her fame to promote the most evil and dangerous Catholic dogmas. Anyone could indict Jerry Falwell or the Pope -- it took Hitchens to tackle this.
The Atheist Camel Chronicles by "Dromedary Hump", 2008
A collection in book form of 105 essays from 2008 and 2009, this volume covers a wide range of the evils of religion, from the most abstract to personal experiences. The most essential, to me, is #51, "Christianity the Cult of Death" -- we are so used to Christian mythology and symbolism that we seldom notice how saturated it all is by "one enormous obsession with death and dying". #52, "Atheist in a Foxhole" about religious bullying in the US military, would be almost unbelievable were it not for the recent news of similar abuse in Virgina. Other essays deal with Islamic honor killings (#98), the Christian Right's obsession with other people's sex lives (#72), how fundamentalism is pushing the Republican party toward totalitarianism (#65), and more. Ordering info here.
"Teaching Evolution in Muslim States" in Reports of the NCSE vol. 30 #3, May-June 2010
This article compares just two Muslim states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but the contrast between them is vast. Saudi education rejects evolution entirely, denouncing it as a false theory and affirming the Koran (whose creation story closely resembles that of the Old Testament) as the final word on the origins of life. Iran's schools not only fully accept evolution, but provide a more solid and detailed grounding in it than most American schools probably do. The roots of the difference lie in history and culture. Saudi Arabia is one of the world's newest organized countries, while Iran is one of the oldest; Iran's society is much more complex, it has been urbanized for much longer, and its aspirations to be taken seriously as a great nation preclude chaining itself to the absurdity of creationism, even under the wretched theocracy which now rules it. One more sign that, when that theocracy finally goes, Iran will likely join the modern world with startling speed.
The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, 1982
Most of Dawkins's books are aimed at the general public; this one is aimed mainly at his fellow biologists, and it is thus considerably more technical. The rewards of reading it, however, are profound -- there is far more to genetics than the popular mind dreams of. Dawkins views organisms as mechanisms constructed by genes to further the successful replication of those genes, not necessarily of the organisms themselves. Genes compete for survival not only with the genes of other organisms, but sometimes also with other genes of the same organism. Genes interact in subtle ways with other copies of themselves in groups of related organisms. Genes can extend their influence beyond the organism in which they exist, shaping the external environment and sometimes even the behavior of other organisms. As Dawkins puts it, pretty much any animal behavior that you see exists to promote the replication of the genes which cause the behavior -- but those genes are not necessarily in the animal which is exhibiting the behavior. The world of living things will never again look quite the same to you.