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A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.

30.6.15

Books


Reading Is Forgetting

Art Resource
A cartoon from Punch magazine, December 28, 1867
There are moments when quite separate fragments of information or opinion come together and something hitherto only vaguely intuited becomes clear. Opening a new book called Forgetting by the Dutch writer Douwe Draaisma, I am told almost at once that our immediate visual memories “can hold on to stimuli for no more than a fraction of a second.” This fact—our inevitable forgetting, or simply barely registering most of the visual input we receive—is acknowledged with some regret since we are generally encouraged, Draaisma reflects, “to imagine memory as the ability to preserve something, preferably everything, wholly intact.”
The same day, I ran across a quotation from Vladimir Nabokov on the Internet: “Curiously enough,” the author of Lolita tells us, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Intrigued by this paradox, I checked out the essay it came from. “When we read a book for the first time,” Nabokov complains, “the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.” Only on a third or fourth reading, he claims, do we start behaving toward a book as we would toward a painting, holding it all in the mind at once.
Nabokov does not mention forgetting, but it’s clear that this is what he is largely talking about. The physical effort of moving the eyes back and forth remains exactly the same on every reading of a book, nor have I ever found it particularly laborious. What is different on a second and subsequent readings is our growing capacity for retention, for putting things in relation to one another. We know the end of the story now and can see how it is foreshadowed at the beginning, how the strands are spun and gathered together. Rereading Mrs. Dalloway, for example, we are struck on the first page to find the comment “What a lark, what a plunge,” of Clarissa’s sallying forth from her house into the street, aware as we now are that later in the book one of the characters will plunge to his death from an upper window. At once we feel we know the novel better, or at least are more aware of its careful construction. It is gratifying.
Nabokov continues his essay, quoting Flaubert: Comme l’on serait savant si l’on connaissait bien seulement cinq ou sìx livres. (“What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books.”) The ideal here, it seems, is total knowledge of the book, total and simultaneous awareness of all its contents, total recall. Knowledge, wisdom even, lies in depth, not extension. The book, at once complex and endlessly available for revisits, allows the mind to achieve an act of prodigious control. Rather than submitting ourselves to a stream of information, in thrall to each precarious moment of a single reading, we can gradually come to possess, indeed to memorize, the work outside time.
Since a reader could only achieve such mastery with an extremely limited number of books, it will be essential to establish that very few works are worth this kind of attention. We are pushed, that is, toward an elitist vision of literature in which aesthetic appreciation requires exhaustive knowledge only of the best. It is the view of writing and reading that was taught in English departments forty years ago: the dominance of the canon, the assumption of endless nuance and ambiguity, the need for close textual analysis.
Needless to say it’s also an approach that consoles professors for having to reread the same texts year in year out. (Indeed, if I frequently quote from Lawrence and Joyce and Beckett and Woolf in this space, it is because these are authors whose works I regularly teach and have reread more times than I care to think.) And of course it is precisely the kind of text that is wilfully complex and difficult—UlyssesIn Search of Lost TimeThe Magic Mountain, Gadda’s That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—that allows the professor, who has read it ten times, to stay safely ahead of his bewildered students.
Meanwhile, our reactions to a book on first reading are irrelevant, except in so far as they do or don’t encourage us to go back to the beginning and start again. But since this whole approach assumes that no book worth its salt will yield its best first time around and that we can’t know what might come up on further readings—an idea that is easy to sell to a young and inexperienced reader approaching Musil or Svevo or Kafka—the decision to reread is more or less taken for us by our teachers, or by critics. In short, our betters will tell us from their experience which books we should be reading—rereading, that is—since our first reading is hardly reading at all. Once the canon is established, then, it is unlikely to change, since who has time to check out the stuff that didn’t make it? If, that is, on Flaubert’s recommendation, my half dozen books are still yielding new depths, why should I look elsewhere?
So, is this an ideal attitude to literature? Is Nabokov right that there is only rereading? Does the whole posture, both Nabokov’s and that of critical orthodoxy, bear any relation to the reality of our reading habits, particularly in a contemporary environment that offers us more and more books and less and less time to read them?
Let’s go back to Douwe Draaisma. Why does he describe our inability to recall the sense impressions of a few seconds before as “forgetting”? That would imply that I had “possessed” those impressions or wanted to possess them. The underlying implication is that life has less worth, less dignity, if it just, as it were, slips by. Yet even as I write now I am aware of scores of sense impressions. The position of papers, teacups, pens, phone, and books on the glass surface of my living-room table, which is also reflecting the opposite wall with its shelves and bric-a-brac and, as it happens, fresh white paint; the hum of the fridge and a distant siren, a dog barking and the sunlight bouncing off the façade across the street yellowing the cream color of my curtains. I will never be able to recall a fraction of all this tomorrow, or a year hence. Yet such perceptions are very much part of the pleasure of being here in the present as I write and without them life would be poor indeed.
Of course one reason I won’t be able to recall all my impressions is that they will have been substituted by others, equally rich, plus the fact that having written down a few elements of the here and now, any memory of it I might have mustered will be colored if not hijacked by that account. In dismissing the myth of total recall, Draaisma reminds us that the memories we do retain are largely fabrications, re-workings, shifting narratives, simplifications, distortions, photos replacing faces, and so on; what’s more, that there is no reason to suppose that the original impression is intact somewhere in our heads. We do not possess the past, even that of a few moments ago, and this is hardly a cause for regret, since to do so would severely obstruct our experience of the present.
Does this throw any light on the business of reading? Well, one has to wonder about Nabokov’s enthusiasm for rereading. Is it really a gradual and always positive accumulation of greater and greater control and retention, or is it rather a precarious process in which each new engagement with the text cancels and alters earlier ones? I will never recover my first excitement on reading, say, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or Browning’s Men and Women, or Beckett’s Molloy. Often, I have a sense of disappointment when I reread: Graham Greene, E. M. Forster, Calvino, Antonio Tabucchi, do not seem as exhilarating now as when I first tackled them. But why should that diminish the pleasure I once experienced? Why should I not rejoice that I am enjoying a new book today, rather than worry what the verdict of some future rereading might be? The purpose of reading is not to pass some final judgement on the text, but to engage with what it has to offer to me now.
Nabokov of course was an obsessive collector of butterflies; the most elusive of creatures were to be pinned down. Many of his characters exhibit the qualities, perversions, and insecurities of the collector. Humbert Humbert opens his story with an attempt to possess Lolita through the pronunciation of her name, “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.” Words in general have a vocation for rearranging and fixing experience in a way that can be communicated across space and time. Yet often it seems that our experience of the words once written down is as volatile and precarious as our other sense impressions. No reader ever really takes complete control of a book—it’s an illusion—and perhaps to expend vast quantities of energy seeking to do so is a form of impoverishment. Couldn’t there be a hint of irony in Flaubert’s Comme l’on serait savant… (“What a scholar one might be…”)? Is it really wise to renounce all the impressions that a thousand books could bring, all that living, for the wisdom of five or six?

Voices on Joyce: A showcase of Irish takes on James Joyce

Voices on Joyce: A showcase of Irish takes on James Joyce



The Tunguska Event | History Today

The Tunguska Event | History Today



Fallen trees at Tunguska in 1927

Paul Krugman: It’s “been obvious for some time that the euro was a terrible mistake” - Salon.com

Paul Krugman: It’s “been obvious for some time that the euro was a terrible mistake” - Salon.com

29.6.15

The PM

Winston Churchill’s Beach Reading: His Top Ten Books

Jonathan Rose
More than most politicians, Winston Churchill was an insatiable reader. He loved to schmooze with authors, and what he read profoundly shaped his political worldview. He never actually published a “Top Ten” list of his favorite booksbut if he had, it might have been something like this:
  1. The Time Machine, H. G. Wells: Churchill called it “a wonderful book, in the same class asGulliver’s Travels. It is one of the books I would like to take with me to Purgatory.” Fascinated by cutting-edge weapons technology, Churchill played a key role in the development of the tankan invention that Wells had anticipated in a short story. Like Wells, Churchill made a business of offering scientific predictions, and some of them were spot on: he foresaw the atomic bomb and poultry shot through with hormones, among other modern horrors.
  2. King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard: As a young man he read this African adventure tale about a dozen times, and once he closely questioned Haggard about what it all meant. Today it is often misread as an imperialist novel, when in fact it is a story of resistance to a genocidal tyranta story that left a deep and obvious impression on Churchill.
  3. ExodusNot the Leon Uris novel, the original Old Testament book. Though he was not very religious, Churchill was convinced that every word of it was true. There’s no denying that it’s a real page-turner (scroll-turner?). And it helped to inspire Churchill’s passionate commitment to Zionism.
  4. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde: This may come as a surprise, but Wilde had been a friend of his mother Jennie, and he provided a model for Winston’s distinctive style of wit. Though the subject was too scandalous to discuss openly, there is evidence that Churchill considered Wilde’s imprisonment a terrible injustice. As Prime Minister in 1954 he discussed in the Cabinet (behind closed doors) reforming the laws against homosexuality. Ultimately he concluded that Parliament wasn’t ready for that (true at the time), but he thought that in the near future public opinion might shift (true again).
  5. Counter-Attack and Other Poems, Siegfried Sassoon: Another surprise, given that Churchill loved fighting the First World War, but he memorized and movingly recited Sassoon’s antiwar verses. Generals worried that those subversive poems might undermine troop morale, but Churchill replied “I am not a bit afraid of Siegfried Sassoon. That man can think. I am afraid only of people who cannot think.”
  6. Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw: In the midst of the Great War, Churchill offered Siegfried Sassoon a job in the Ministry of Munitions. If you’re baffled by that (and Sassoon certainly was), it begins to make sense once you know that in this drama, written by Churchill’s favorite playwright, an arms manufacturer persuades a Salvation Army officer and her peace-loving fiancé that weapons can be a force for good. A passionate theatergoer, Churchill often played out in life and politics what he had seen on the stage, and this is a striking example.
  7. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck: Churchill was sincerely moved by this saga of China in revolutionary turmoil, though he didn’t entirely get it. On finishing the book, he concluded that the toiling Chinese masses would have been much happier if, like the Indians, they had enjoyed the blessings of British rulenot exactly the message that the author intended to send.
  8. It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis: This dystopian nightmare envisioned America under the Fascist jackboot, ruled by a corn pone despot clearly based on Huey Long. When Long was shot and killed, Churchill gloated over the demise of “the most clownish of the Dictator tribe.”
  9. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell: It was a blockbuster in Britain as well as the United States, and Churchill probably knew more about the American Civil War than any Englishman of his generation. He found the novel all too relevant when, in March 1938, Hitler invaded Austria. Once again, a genteel aristocratic civilization had been crushed by its powerful Northern neighbor.
  10. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell: During the Second World War, Churchill observed with apprehension the growth of the national security state. In a 1945 election broadcast he warned that postwar Britain might be dominated by “some kind of Gestapo”. So when George Orwell imagined that in his 1949 novel, Churchill read it twice. In his final years he was spellbound by the literature of totalitarianism, including Brave New WorldDoctor Zhivago, andOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Who was Saint Paul?

Who was Saint Paul? | Thinking Faith





Amy Schumer

Amy Schumer fires back on Twitter: “You can call it a ‘blind spot for racism’ or ‘lazy’ but you’d be wrong. It is a joke and it is funny.” - Salon.com



Amy Schumer fires back on Twitter: "You can call it a 'blind spot for racism' or 'lazy' but you'd be wrong. It is a joke and it is funny."

Understanding Pope Francis requires taking a broader - or virtual - view | America Magazine

Understanding Pope Francis requires taking a broader - or virtual - view | America Magazine

The Palace of Diocletian at Split | History Today

The Palace of Diocletian at Split | History Today



Reconstruction of Diocletian's Palace in its original appearance upon completion in AD 305 (viewed from the south-west)

28.6.15

Wimbledon 2015: How to survive the queue at SW19 - Telegraph

Wimbledon 2015: How to survive the queue at SW19 - Telegraph





Drawings of Ambrose Bierce’s Bitter, Misanthropic Epigrams

Drawings of Ambrose Bierce’s Bitter, Misanthropic Epigrams



image1

The Championships Await

#WimbledonAwaits hashtag on Twitter



James Salter

James Salter, 1925–2015

June 22, 2015 | by 
Photograph by Neil Rasmus.
Salter accepting the Hadada Prize in 2011. Photograph by Neil Rasmus.
We were sad to learn that James Salter died on Friday at ninety. “He once called himself a ‘frotteur,’ saying he liked to rub words between his fingers,” Louisa Thomas wrote today inGrantland. “He wrote for the ear, not the eye, in lines that are long and unspooling or short and taut as bowstrings … It is in their quiet accumulation, the way they weave together, that they become transparent, graceful, and devastating.”
Salter had a long affiliation with The Paris Review; the quarterly published many of his stories, beginning with “Sundays”, which appeared in our Summer 1966 issue. George Plimpton published Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime through Paris Review Editions, a short-lived imprint attached to Doubleday. “Although I have never managed to appear on the masthead, which has innumerable people on it,” Salter said in his 1993 Art of Fiction interview, “I feel I am a member of the family.”
In 2011, we awarded Salter our Hadada Prize, given annually to a “distinguished member of the literary community who has demonstrated a strong and unique commitment to literature.” This week, to celebrate and remember him, the Daily will rerun a series of pieces about him written in anticipation of that award. To begin, we’re reprinting his acceptance speech, given April 12, 2011. 
*
Well of course I knew this was going to happen. Terry McDonell called me and he said, “We would like to give you the Hadada this year,” and I said, “Terry, it might be a better idea to give it to somebody a little younger.” He said, “No, no, no, no, you are missing the point entirely.” It turns out that in the African language from which the word comes, hadada means “Hail, great father.” Ha-da-da.
The Paris Review was always the pinnacle, it was the place to be published, you were thrilled if you were published in The Paris Review, and George Plimpton himself was practically mythical. He was a legendary figure.
I had written a novel. It was A Sport and a Pastime. And it had been turned down by publishers, four or five of them, and I thought I was probably wrong about it, it was not really any good. And then, through a friend, Bill Becker, it came to The Paris Review. One day the phone rang, and I said “Hello.” And a voice said, “Yes, hello, this is George Plimpton.” He said, “You know, I have your novel, and I really like it, I like it very much. We’d like to publish it.” At that time, The Paris Review had a small book publishing operation, they had published a handful of books. He said, “We’d like to publish it.” I said, “That’s wonderful.” He said, “Yes. But there is just one thing.” “Yes.” He said, “I don’t think that any really good novels are written in the first person.” Of course, my mind went blank. I couldn’t think of anything. I didn’t know what to say to him except, suddenly it occurred to me, a book really far removed from the book we were talking about, that was the only thing I could think of, I said, “Well, what about All Quiet on the Western Front,” and he said, “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” That was the end of the editing.
Not long ago, maybe a half a dozen years ago The Paris Review sponsored a reading at a Barnes and Noble in New York and I read there with Jim Shepard and George introduced the program. I had had a number of stories published in The Paris Review at that time and when it came to my turn to read I stood up at the podium, I don’t know what came over me, for some reason I said “Well, this is a new story, it has never been published, I don’t think it is the kind of story The Paris Review would be interested in,” and then I read it. It was a story called “Bangkok,” it happens to read very well. And I could see that people were interested, and I finished it, and I came towards the back again, and there was George, and he said, “What do you mean, this is something The Paris Review wouldn’t be interested in? Give me that thing!” And he grabbed it out of my hand, and that was the last of the editing he did for me. So you can see why I esteem and revere him. It would be hard to get too serious about an award, about a prize with this silly name, a hadada, but it means a great deal to me and I consider it in the light of the writers who have won it before me, who are an esteemed bunch. This, I don’t think I can lift it, is the Hadada. And I can only say that tonight thank you all, this is my Stockholm.

'Love and Mercy' tells genius and tragedy of Beach Boys' Brian Wilson | America Magazine

'Love and Mercy' tells genius and tragedy of Beach Boys' Brian Wilson | America Magazine



Dark matter may be even darker than originally thought - Salon.com

Dark matter may be even darker than originally thought - Salon.com



Dark matter may be even darker than originally thought

27.6.15

BBC - Culture - How India changed the English language

BBC - Culture - How India changed the English language

Aeon Ideas - Fredrik deBoer on Who is the most under...

Aeon Ideas - Fredrik deBoer on Who is the most under...

Obama told by Sir David Attenborough how to save planet - BBC News - YouTube

Obama told by Sir David Attenborough how to save planet - BBC News - YouTube

Living in the Age of Airplanes

Living in the Age of Airplanes

22 alternative London tube maps

22 alternative London tube maps

ISIS and the Lonely Young American -

ISIS and the Lonely Young American - The New York Times

The crisis in non-fiction publishing | Books | The Guardian

The crisis in non-fiction publishing | Books | The Guardian



Piles of books

The most powerful man in classical music » The Spectator

The most powerful man in classical music » The Spectator



One of Wilford's most treasured clients Herbert von Karajan. Photo: Getty Images

The FT’s Summer books 2015

The FT’s Summer books 2015 - FT.com



Why we need Arnold Toynbee's good life

Why we need Arnold Toynbee's good life – Ian Beacock – Aeon




Hmmmm

The Rest Is History

Using leeches to cure what ails you, endangered historic sites, and a 1941 beard-off.
FRIDAY, JUNE 26, 2015
IMAGE:
The best beard in all the land, c. 1941. National Archives
• “Not long before he was assassinated, Julius Caesar sent four Greek surveyors off in the cardinal directions. This was a decades-long project, so the work of mapping the world fell not to Caesar, but to a Roman statesman named Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. The map he built was lost to history, but is believed to have been fashioned from a single rectangle of marble as large as nine feet tall.” To get from ancient Rome to Google, you’re going to need a map. (New Republic)
• We might titter at some of the advice found in the British Library and collected in a new book, but the existence of tips on the use of leeches, how often (and how specifically) to brush one’s hair, and even the skinning of a lion speak to the fact that for most of human history, the success of things like health, fashion, and food were tied to a person’s ability to be self-reliant. (Mental Floss)
• If 23 percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, will studying that religion’s sacred texts make you smarter? In South Korea families who believe just that have made the Talmud a bestseller. (New Yorker’s Page Turner)
• Each year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation releases a list of eleven American sites it considers most threatened—by development, by neglect, or by natural disaster. This year’s list includes an immigrant neighborhood in Miami, one of the few buildings to withstand San Francisco’s Great Fire of 1906, and New York City’s South Street Seaport. (National Trust for Historic Preservation)
• “I think I could give up everything else,” he said, “the cars, the tanks, the guns, as long as I could still have Adolf and Hermann. They’re my real love.” Kevin Wheatcroft owns the world’s largest collection of Nazi memorabilia and artifacts, including beds slept in by Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring. (The Guardian)
• “Although we imagine wearable technology as quintessentially modern, according to MIT’s Media Lab it actually dates back to at least 1268, when the English philosopher Roger Bacon made the first recorded mention of eyeglasses. Next came the pocket watch in 1762, and in 1907 Louis Cartier’s wristwatch. Buttons, zippers, polyester: fashion always has been the domain of technologies so important to our daily lives that we barely notice them.” We’ve always had an interest in making technology wearable, but when will we make it attractive? (The Walrus)
• American soldiers stationed in the Philippines in 1941 were (rightly) worried about what escalation of combat in the Pacific Theater meant for them, so they grew out their beards and had a contest to see whose facial hair was the best. The National Archives has video of the judging and the beaming winner. (Unwritten Record)
• Are we ever really going to know what happened to Rasputin’s penis? A Moscow sex museum says yes. (Atlas Obscura)

26.6.15

Religion

Religious belief the world over has a strenuous relationship with intellectualism. But why?


Religion's smart-people problem: The shaky intellectual foundations of absolute faith(Credit: Wikimedia)
Should you believe in a God? Not according to most academic philosophers. A comprehensive survey revealed that only about 14 percent of English speaking professional philosophers are theists.  As for what little religious belief remains among their colleagues, most professional philosophers regard it as a strange aberration among otherwise intelligent people. Among scientists the situation is much the same. Surveys of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, composed of the most prestigious scientists in the world, show that religious belief among them is practically nonexistent, about 7 percent.
Now nothing definitely follows about the truth of a belief from what the majority of philosophers or scientists think. But such facts might cause believers discomfort. There has been a dramatic change in the last few centuries in the proportion of believers among the highly educated in the Western world. In the European Middle Ages belief in a God was ubiquitous, while today it is rare among the intelligentsia. This change occurred primarily because of the rise of modern science and a consensus among philosophers that arguments for the existence of gods, souls, afterlife and the like were unconvincing. Still, despite the view of professional philosophers and world-class scientists, religious beliefs have a universal appeal. What explains this?
Genes and environment explain human beliefs and behaviors—people do things because they are genomes in environments. The near universal appeal of religious belief suggests a biological component to religious beliefs and practices, and science increasingly confirms this view. There is a scientific consensus that our brains have been subject to natural selection. So what survival and reproductive roles might religious beliefs and practices have played in our evolutionary history? What mechanisms caused the mind to evolve toward religious beliefs and practices?
Today there are two basic explanations offered. One says that religion evolved by natural selection—religion is an adaptation that provides an evolutionary advantage. For example religion may have evolved to enhance social cohesion and cooperation—it may have helped groups survive. The other explanation claims that religious beliefs and practices arose as byproducts of other adaptive traits. For example, intelligence is an adaptation that aids survival. Yet it also forms causal narratives for natural occurrences and postulates the existence of other minds. Thus the idea of hidden Gods explaining natural events was born.
In addition to the biological basis for religious belief, there are environmental explanations. It is self-evident from the fact that religions are predominant in certain geographical areas but not others, that birthplace strongly influences religious belief. This suggests that people’s religious beliefs are, in large part, accidents of birth. Besides cultural influences there is the family; the best predictor of people’s religious beliefs in individuals is the religiosity of their parents. There are also social factors effecting religious belief. For example, a significant body of scientific evidence suggests that popular religion results from social dysfunction. Religion may be a coping mechanism for the stress caused by the lack of a good social safety net—hence the vast disparity between religious belief in Western Europe and the United States.
There is also a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, abortions, corruption, income inequality and more. While no causal relationship has been established, a United Nations list of the 20 best countries to live in shows the least religious nations generally at the top. Only in the United States, which was ranked as the 13th best country to live in, is religious belief strong relative to other countries. Moreover, virtually all the countries with comparatively little religious belief ranked high on the list of best countries, while the majority of countries with strong religious belief ranked low. While correlation does not equal causation, the evidence should give pause to religion’s defenders. There are good reasons to doubt that religious belief makes people’s lives go better, and good reasons to believe that they make their lives go worse.
Despite all this most people still accept some religious claims. But this fact doesn’t give us much reason to accept religious claims. People believe many weird things that are completely irrational—astrology, fortunetelling, alien abductions, telekinesis and mind reading—and reject claims supported by an overwhelming body of evidence—biological evolution for example. More than three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus than in biological evolution, although few theologians take the former seriously, while no serious biologist rejects the latter!
Consider too that scientists don’t take surveys of the public to determine whether relativity or evolutionary theory are true; their truth is assured by the evidence as well as by resulting technologies—global positioning and flu vaccines work. With the wonders of science every day attesting to its truth, why do many prefer superstition and pseudo science? The simplest answer is that people believe what they want to, what they find comforting, not what the evidence supports: In general, people don’t want to know; they want to believe. This best summarizes why people tend to believe.
Why, then, do some highly educated people believe religious claims? First, smart persons are good at defending ideas that they originally believed for non-smart reasons. They want to believe something, say for emotional reasons, and they then become adept at defending those beliefs. No rational person would say there is more evidence for creation science than biological evolution, but the former satisfies some psychological need for many that the latter does not. How else to explain the hubris of the philosopher or theologian who knows little of biology or physics yet denies the findings of those sciences? It is arrogant of those with no scientific credentials and no experience in the field or laboratory, to reject the hard-earned knowledge of the science. Still they do it. (I knew a professional philosopher who doubted both evolution and climate science but believed he could prove that the Christian God must take a Trinitarian form! Surely something emotional had short-circuited his rational faculties.)
Second, the proclamations of educated believers are not always to be taken at face value. Many don’t believe religious claims but think them useful. They fear that in their absence others will lose a basis for hope, morality or meaning. These educated believers may believe that ordinary folks can’t handle the truth. They may feel it heartless to tell parents of a dying child that their little one doesn’t go to a better place. They may want to give bread to the masses, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.     
Our sophisticated believers may be manipulating, using religion as a mechanism of social control, as Gibbon noted long ago: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.” Consider the so-called religiosity of many contemporary politicians, whose actions belie the claim that they really believe the precepts of the religions to which they supposedly ascribe. Individuals may also profess belief because it is socially unacceptable not to; they don’t want to be out of the mainstream or fear they will not be reelected or loved if they profess otherwise. So-called believers may not believe the truth of their claims; instead they may think that others are better off or more easily controlled if those others believe. Or perhaps they may just want to be socially accepted.
Third, when sophisticated thinkers claim to be religious, they often have something in mind unlike what the general populace believes. They may be process theologians who argue that god is not omnipotent, contains the world, and changes. They may identify god as an anti-entropic force pervading the universe leading it to higher levels of organization. They may be pantheists, panentheists, or death-of-god theologians. Yet these sophisticated varieties of religious belief bear little resemblance to popular religion. The masses would be astonished to discover how far such beliefs deviate from their theism.
But we shouldn’t be deceived. Although there are many educated religious believers, including some philosophers and scientists, religious belief declines with educational attainment, particularly with scientific education. Studies also show that religious belief declines among those with higher IQs. Hawking, Dennett and Dawkins are not outliers, and neither is Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.
Or consider this anecdotal evidence. Among the intelligentsia it is common and widespread to find individuals who lost childhood religious beliefs as their education in philosophy and the sciences advanced. By contrast, it is almost unheard of to find disbelievers in youth who came to belief as their education progressed. This asymmetry is significant; advancing education is detrimental to religious belief. This suggest another part of the explanation for religious belief—scientific illiteracy.
If we combine reasonable explanations of the origin of religious beliefs and the small amount of belief among the intelligentsia with the problematic nature of beliefs in gods, souls, afterlives or supernatural phenomena generally, we can conclude that (supernatural) religious beliefs are probably false. And we should remember that the burden of proof is not on the disbeliever to demonstrate there are no gods, but on believers to demonstrate that there areBelievers are not justified in affirming their belief on the basis of another’s inability to conclusively refute them, any more than a believer in invisible elephants can command my assent on the basis of my not being able to “disprove” the existence of the aforementioned elephants. If the believer can’t provide evidence for a god’s existence, then I have no reason to believe in gods.
In response to the difficulties with providing reasons to believe in things unseen, combined with the various explanations of belief, you might turn to faith. It is easy to believe something without good reasons if you are determined to do so—like the queen in “Alice and Wonderland” who “sometimes … believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” But there are problems with this approach. First, if you defend such beliefs by claiming that you have a right to your opinion, however unsupported by evidence it might be, you are referring to a political or legal right, not an epistemic one. You may have a legal right to say whatever you want, but you have epistemic justification only if there are good reasons and evidence to support your claim. If someone makes a claim without concern for reasons and evidence, we should conclude that they simply don’t care about what’s true. We shouldn’t conclude that their beliefs are true because they are fervently held.
Another problem is that fideism—basing one’s beliefs exclusively on faith—makes belief arbitrary, leaving no way to distinguish one religious belief from another. Fideism allows no reason to favor your preferred beliefs or superstitions over others. If I must accept your beliefs without evidence, then you must accept mine, no matter what absurdity I believe in. But is belief without reason and evidence worthy of rational beings? Doesn’t it perpetuate the cycle of superstition and ignorance that has historically enslaved us? I agree with W.K. Clifford. “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Why? Because your beliefs affect other people, and your false beliefs may harm them.
The counter to Clifford’s evidentialism has been captured by thinkers like Blaise Pascal, William James, and Miguel de Unamuno. Pascal’s famous dictum expresses: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” William James claimed that reason can’t resolve all issues and so we are sometimes justified believing ideas that work for us. Unamuno searched for answers to existential questions, counseling us to abandon rationalism and embrace faith. Such proposals are probably the best the religious can muster, but if reason can’t resolve our questions then agnosticism, not faith, is required.
Besides, faith without reason doesn’t satisfy most of us, hence our willingness to seek reasons to believe. If those reasons are not convincing, if you conclude that religious beliefs are untrue, then religious answers to life’s questions are worthless. You might comfort yourself by believing that little green dogs in the sky care for you but this is just nonsense, as are any answers attached to such nonsense. Religion may help us in the way that whisky helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk. If religious beliefs are just vulgar superstitions, then we are basing our lives on delusions. And who would want to do that?
Why is all this important? Because human beings need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and  its love, its war and its peace. They need to make the world better. No one else will.
John G. Messerly is the author of “The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives.” He blogs these issues daily at reasonandmeaning.com. You can follow him on Twitter @hume1955.