Skepticism, Religion Archive

Monday, January 31, 2011

More Thoughts on Left Behind After Finishing the Book

I'd already written my initial impressions of Left Behind after reading the first 50 pages. I mentioned in that entry that I'd started reading Slacktivist's reviews of the book, which had biased me against the story before I even started reading it. Well, I finally finished the first book. My pace reading the book outstripped my pace reading Slactivist's blog entries, so I was able to be less biased by preconceptions. That helped. The book still wasn't the greatest, but I could at least begin to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the story for what it was. In fact, I think I'll try to finish the whole series (just not all at once).

Much of what I wrote in my initial impressions hasn't changed. The two lead characters, Cameron 'Buck' Williams and Rayford Steele, aren't very sympathetic. You don't so much root for them, as just read to see what's going to happen. The two characters that readers could relate to the most were Hattie Durham, the flight attendant that Steele had led on for years, only to dump in the aftermath of the Rapture, and Chloe Steel, Rayford's daughter.

One thing I didn't mention in the first review was the lack of detail. The introduction of Hattie Durham described her as "drop dead gorgeous", but that was all the detail given. Different people have different ideas of what constitutes "drop dead gorgeous", so I was left wondering if she was beutiful in an Elle McPherson sort of way, or a Tyra Banks sort of way, or a Halle Berry sort of way, or Marilyn Monroe sort of way, or an Eva Mendes sort of way, or a Salma Hayek sort of way, or an Angelina Jolie sort of way, or, well, you get the picture. There are so many different ways a woman can be considered gorgeous, that it's not a very descriptive description. It wasn't until around 50 pages into the book that we learned Hattie weighed 115 pounds, and we didn't really get much more description after that. And this was similar to all of the main characters. I now know that Buck is blonde, and in reasonably good shape, but L&J gave so little detail that I just imagined him throughout the book to look like Kirk Cameron, the actor who played him in the movie.

I think one of the most interesting aspects of the book is what it revealed about L&J's view of the world (and by extension, those people with similar outlooks). L&J portrayed non-believers as being skeptical of religion, or just not being very interested in religion at all. But remember, they're writing about a post-Rapture world. Everybody on Earth had already witnessed the miraculous defense of Israel during the Russian attack, and the sudden disappearance of billions in one instant. These aren't miracles on the scale of seeing the Virgin Mary in a potato chip. These are the types of events that would make James Randi and Michael Shermer sit up and take notice. Given the continued skepticism of religion exhibited by many characters in the book following these miracles, I can only imagine that that's the way L&J see the world, now. They must think that evidence for the divine is obvious, and us skeptics choose not to see it. I'm not sure if they understand how much some of us have looked for that evidence, or the sincerity of our non-belief. (Or maybe they're Calvinists, and don't think it matters how much we try, since Yahweh's already decided who he's going to save and who he's going to punish for all eternity in the fiery furnace with the gnashing of teeth.)

There's a similar theme with conspiracy theorists. In the world of Left Behind, there's a global cabal pulling all the strings behind the curtains. Buck Williams knows an informant who's told him of various meetings and decisions of this group. But despite the informant being right, even on extremely unlikely events (like predicting the global economy consolidating on three currencies - dollars, marks and yen), Buck still treats the guy as a bit loony because he's a conspiracy theorist. In the real world, conspiracy theorists are mocked not just because of their outlandish ideas, but because of their lack of evidence to back them up. If any conspiracy theorists could back up their ideas the way Buck's informant did in the book, people would start taking them seriously. Again, I wonder if this comes from L&J's own experience. They're entirely convinced that their own outlandish ideas are true, yet they've been mocked repeatedly for those ideas. Is that just how L&J think the world deals with (what they consider to be) true ideas?

Left Behind wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible, either. It wasn't, as Slacktivist said, "The Worst Book Ever Written." At the very least, it gives you some insight into the mindset of premillenial dispensationalists. If you can get past the corny dialog, unlikeable heros, and lack of detail, and then suspend your disbelief about the implausible scenarios, you can enjoy the book. I liked it enough that I'll probably read the rest of the series.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Does the Bible Really Say Pi = 3

PiI spend much more time on this site debunking religious arguments than atheist arguments, but I've just been reminded of one of the stupider arguments that some atheists use, so I thought I'd deal with it. Obviously, if you've read the rest of this blog, you know I'm an atheist myself, but I think that stupid arguments are bad no matter who's making them.

In 1 Kings 7:23, discussing Solomon's Temple, the Bible describes some of the furnishings thusly:

He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.

Now, as everyone should remember from elementary school, circumference and diameter are related by the formula:

Circumference = Pi * Diameter

Or, to rearrange that equation a bit to solve for Pi:

Pi = Circumference / Diameter

Using the passage, we could then calculate Pi as follows:

Pi = 30 / 10

or

Pi = 3

Again, thinking back to elementary school days, everybody should at least know a 3 digit approximation of Pi as 3.14. And so the argument goes, since the Bible gives such an erroneous value for Pi, it obviously can't be the inspired word of God. Here's one example of someone trying to use this argument, but I've seen it many other places.

In short, I think this is a rather stupid argument.

Pi is an irrational number. In other words, it doesn't matter how many decimal places you want to carry it out to, you'll only ever be able to write it as an approximation, and never an exact value. If you're still not following what that means, if you say that Pi is approximately 3.14, I could say - true, but it's really a bit closer to 3.142. But if you use 3.142, then I could say it's actually a bit closer to 3.1416. But if you use 3.1416, I could counter with 3.14159, and on and on forever. There's just no way to write pi as an exact value*. What this also means, is that even if you know the diameter exactly, you won't be able to write the circumference exactly, and vice versa.

So, when a scribe was describing Solomon's Temple, and wanted to give measurements of furnishings, there's no possible way he could have given exact values for the circumference and diameter of circular objects. It wasn't a limitation because the ancients didn't know enough. Even today, we couldn't do it. It's just a physical impossibility. So, the scribe rounded off his numbers.

Some people might still want to argue that the Bible would at least have been more accurate if it had used 31 cubits for the circumference of a 10 cubit diameter circle. I say - who cares? It's necessarily an approximation, so the scribe only used a single significant figure. Besides, there are plenty of sillier passages from the Bible, such as Genesis 30:37-43 or Judges 1:19, that skeptics can use in these types of arguments.


*This reminds me of the nerd obsession with knowing as many digits of Pi as possible. While this is certainly interesting for a variety of reasons, it's not really terribly practical. For example, if you use an approximation of Pi out to 10 decimal places (3.141 592 653 6), for a sphere the size of the Earth (diameter = 7917.5 miles), your calculation of the circumference would be off by less than 0.006 inches. And that's assuming you knew the diameter exactly. In reality, the uncertainty in your measurement would swamp the discrepancy from using your approximation of Pi.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Update

Book Cover to Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff LewisI'm copying this in the original entry where I announced my book, but I figured I'd give it its own entry as well. My self-published book, Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff Lewis, is now available through the print on demand company, Lulu, for the low, low price of $4.99. What makes this announcement different than the first, is that I've finally received my copy of the book to review, and it looks good. The few changes I'd made from the first review copy did help a lot with the layout. I'm not planning on making any changes to it for a while, so you're safe if you order the book now.

As a reminder, the book contains the essays from my Religious Essays section. You can still read the essays for free by following that link, but if you particularly like them, or want to share them with someone, you may want the book.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My New Book Is Now Available

Book Cover to Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff LewisI've published a book (sort of). It's the collection of essays from my Religious Essays section. The book is available through the print on demand company, Lulu, for the low, low price of $4.99 Here's the link to buy it:

Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff Lewis.

The essays are still available for free on this site, but I figured some people (okay, just me) might want a nice, professionally printed and bound copy of the essays.

I say that I only 'sort of' published the book, because it's super easy to publish on Lulu. You don't have to convince anybody that your book's good enough. You just upload it, hit the publish button, and anybody can buy it. It's the modern version of a vanity press, but without having to pay for a print run.

I've only looked over 1 review copy, and haven't actually ordered this latest version, yet. I think it should be okay, though. The review copy I got looked pretty good already, and I only made minor changes. So, if you order the book, I think you'll be safe.


Added 2011-01-12 I finally got the review copy that incorporated my revisions. It looks good. The changes did help with the layout and made the book easier to read. So, you're definitely safe if you order the book now.

Monday, December 20, 2010

This Season, Celebrate Reason - Updates to Religious Essays Section

This Season, Celebrate ReasonI've revisited my Religious Essays section, and made a few changes. There's nothing major if you've already read that section and followed this blog. The biggest change was adding a few recent blog entries to the essays. I also made a few formatting changes. In particular, I've made the pdf version nicer, with a cover and even an index. (Actually, I'm working on getting it published on Lulu.com. I was hoping to have a link to it by now, but it's been three weeks since Lulu said they shipped the first copy to me, and I still haven't received it yet, and I'm not about to let other people order until I've had a chance to see what it looks like.) I also cleaned up the index page a bit, hopefully making it easier for people to get to the essays they want to read.

Oh, and all that stuff about celebrating reason this season, I only wrote that because of the timing of updating my religious essays. Celebrate the season however you like.


Added 2010-01-12 - My book is now available, if anyone's interested.

Archives

Selling Out