Book Review: Year of Living Biblically

It seemed really appropriate to select this book as my cruise leisure reading material for several reasons.

Primarily, because religion is a main driver of resistance to science and climate change generally, but also the human contribution  to climate change specifically.It seemed appropriate to be at a Skeptic conference aboard ship among Americans who are mostly religious and self entitlement often stems from religion, each group of believers thinking that they have the inside track and the rest of us do not.

But also because during the conference, the roadblocks to political action on climate change, the resistance to science and education and understanding complexity, all stems back to religion. While I have dismissed religion in my life, it behooved me to understand religion a little better to understand what is it that people are rejecting an evidence based worldview for.

Reading the book detailing Jacob’s delving into belief was a lot more efficient, less cost and time consuming, than doing something similar myself. I think a smart person learns from their own experience, but a wise person can learn from other people’s experience. Wisdom is too often in short supply.

In the spirit of AJ Jacobs of living life as an experiment, it also afforded me a mini-experiment to expose myself to people’s reactions to my reading it not only in in public, but in a controlled environment where I was definitely a fish out of water – being Canadian among Americans, and other socioeconomic differences between me and the usual market for cruise ship vacationers.

This was a laugh out loud book, so reactions varied widely – the funnier that I found the book, the more negative the reactions were – limited to hostile stares without verbal altercations. I suspected that these responses were because people assumed from the cover and my laughing that I was laughing at the bible and it’s followers – which was sometimes true – but mostly, it was laughing at the word smithing or observations/realizations or anecdotes.

The most curious response was at the end of the cruise when we were waiting for the shuttle bus to return us to Canada. The shuttle coordinator became dewy eyed and inspired that I was reading a book on how to become more religious, as she gave the cover the shallowest of scrutiny and waxed poetic about her own faith.

My spouse gave me a fierce look to not correct the woman, which as it turned out, the book had already convinced me to not correct her, an odd side effect because while I respect people’s right and entitlement to believe what they want, I feel no onus to respect said beliefs – but this book made me appreciate the sentiments and people’s need for in a way that I never would have otherwise.

That combined with knowing we were going to be waiting for an hour in this woman’s presence, caused me to decide to not correct her since it would pass as a more pleasant hour in each others company to be pleasant and it’s not like correcting her would have resulted in companionable interactions, and having already seen her dealing with difficult clients and she had skillfully de-escalated the conflict between the husband whose wife had only booked a one way shuttle to the cruise and not round trip back to the airport, I had to wonder how much the shuttle coordinator’s faith contributed to her ability to enjoy life as if came and not be ruffled by disagreeable customer conduct.

Her day was tough enough without my bursting her bubble or trying to. But this was a choice of behaviour that I could make on its own merits, without resorting to bible rules or behaviours, we can be good without gods. We just have to choose our behaviour, our moment, our battles based with our own understanding of good and bad.

That is what I found over and over as a response to AJ Jacobs’ realizations in the books – where he found a reason to be reverent and compassionate as a result of following the Bible, I just saw that in every situation, we have a choose of how to participate and if you follow a set of rules to govern interactions, rules that you have no part in determining and rules which don’t have any obvious reason or basis that you are supposed to just believe have merit, rhyme and reason, you are not choosing, you are simply obeying and limiting the kind of interactions you can have.

The rule of not mixing fibers in your clothing is nonsensical, and it seems that much of the rituals and rules are to occupy the mind and portions of your day that could be spent on meaningful interactions with people or productivity.

In the book, Jacobs finds a degree of comfort in having some things decided for you, such as clothing – rituals replaced planning, choosing, in essence, thinking. He relates that Einstein had 7 identical suits so he wore the same outfit every day – but that was an active choice he made to eliminate the need for daily consideration and this seemed different to me than engaging in rituals because the bible says to engage in these rituals and replace thinking about the choices, it’s more passive means of not exercising your brain to make a thoughtful choice or decision.

Living by a set of given rules does not prepare you to deal with rule conflict or circumstances not considered by the writers of the rules. The Bible is basically the bronze age version of Wikipedia – it had many authors who wrote independent texts which were gathered at various points and edited by committees into which texts were cannon and which text were supplementary or outright excluded. Each author had their own ideas and agenda, as did each editor and committee – which is why the bible is so uneven, inconsistent and contradictory and it’s parts often dramatically different in tone and substance. It’s not a single book by a single author, it’s a collage of text by multiple authors writing down oral stories, writing metaphoric parables, this book was about promoting an idea in the market place of ideas in the time they were written, not an historical rendering of the times the text is written about.

So, much like Shakespeare’s plays do not reflect the historical facts of the stories being told, the stories were changed to reflect what was politically expedient at the time the plays were written as well as recognizing that these are dramatic plays and not documentaries. Poetic license and all that artistic jazz.

There were many junctures in the book where I felt that the real revelation was being held back or perhaps Jacobs hadn’t continued the consideration far enough down the path. Perhaps it was my own resistance to the overall message of there being any value in the bible texts, we are all guilty of confirmation bias and can engage our cognitive dissonance offsets as a matter of course, after all.

But, I am inclined to think that the part of the bible that are valuable are valuable on their own merits and not because they were included in the text – after all – the ideas about compassion and kindness, hospitality and refraining from harming others are not only good for their own sake, but are not unique to the bible – they tend to show up in all religions – because being good, treating people fairly, not causing harm – these are not only self evident – but good Public Relations – to bring about a new religion, people had to connect it to familiar faiths and connect it to feel good behaviours. It’s easier to sell a feel good ideology that doesn’t require too much effort to get the ball rolling – that is the basis of The Secret, a modern wave of promoting wishful thinking and promising the wishes will be realized if the wisher is a good enough person – and few people stop to consider what a young child could have done to cause terminal cancer or death from starvation in a resource poor and poverty stricken country – you aren’t ever supposed to give the punters time to take the philosophy to it’s logical conclusions.

Which, I suppose is why there’s over 700 bible rules and so many rituals to keep people occupied. It’s not that idle hands are the devil’s plaything, but idle time is when when the brain kicks in and starts to wonder and ponder, to think things through, to connect disparate seeming dots into a cohesive and unified whole, to realize what they’ve been sold and bought into…


A.J. Jacobs TED Talk

Coatless Canadians in Alaska – Part 1

We were very excited to go on our first cruise but also my first Skeptic Society conference – the science of climate change.

Being in Vancouver, British Columbia – we are very spoiled by the temperate climate – so much so that we focused on the word “cruise” and not the word “Alaska”. We didn’t pack coats, to the entertainment of many of our southern cruise-mates.

Seattle was gorgeous and to our eyes, not different at all from Vancouver. Trees and coffee shops as far as the eye can see.

We didn’t expect to see much sea life – well, we saw a lot of sea gulls – but we didn’t expect to see much in the way of whales so close to human activity – but we did get treated to an orca once we were closer to Vancouver Island.Not much of one, but one nonetheless.

But the draw of a cruise isn’t only the random animals, but the scenery and the British Columbia coast does not disappoint.

In addition to the Skeptics conference, my choice of cruise reading material was:

It added another level to the experience, as AJ Jacobs immersed himself in Biblical literalism and shared the experience and revelations of trying to obey all the rules of the bible, not just the big 10 – I exposed myself to hard science and emergency preparedness and some political challenges of not only climate change – but climate change resistance that is largely down to religion.

What struck me over and over is how religion is not only retarding social change, but acceptance of science and science literacy. I also wonder why religion sets itself against a hard science like biology and evolution which is supported by the spectrum of biology sciences and geology and not a softer one like anthropology.

I think the answer lies in that anthropology, being the study of people, is easier to understand on many levels so people aren’t as intimidated by the complexity, but also because even the laziest of reviewers of history can see that every civilization has had distinct religions that reflect and reinforced the values of the culture and that no two cultures ever came up with the same religion were there wasn’t a migration path connecting them.

Even so, believers in current practiced religions have to deal with the cognitive dissonance that this god(s) didn’t reveal themselves to earlier humans – but I have yet to hear the explanation for the shyness and allowing people to worship other gods for so long before their pet god made an appearance in the literature and as a social movement.

The first day of lectures was Dr. Donald Prothero on “How Glaciers Work and How Climate Changes” and Dr. Bruce Molnia on “The Retreat of the Glaciers.”

Both presented detailed college level presentations and did not disappoint. The obvious lack of science literacy and the current media trend of equating loud opinion with expert opinion in the USA was disconcerting. There simply is no way to comprehend the resistance to that human activity – industrial, commercial, transportation and resource extraction is impacting the earth’s systems – often overwhelmingly.

The data is overwhelming when you understand it – and that’s the problem, the lack of science literacy means people don’t understand the data coupled with a business, political or religious interest to deny the information.

It is not surprising that the people who most deny climate change is connected to human activity are the same people who denied tobacco was harmful, and with much overlap with the groups trying to define creationism/intelligent design as being science and that the groups who are anti-vaccine use many of the same tactics. Which is to claim the science needs more data, that the data is too complex and then to attack the messenger when they can’t deny the message.

Attacking the messenger is the signal that the battle is lost, since the evidence is no longer deniable and smear tactics are all that remains to the losing defender.

Tomorrow: Glacier pictures and the denier encounter!

Yours – the crusading coatless Canadian!